Natural Qualities

Natural quality applies to those features in the visual environment that are in a relatively undisturbed state. These features predate the arrival of human populations and may include geological formations, fossils, landform, water bodies, vegetation, and wildlife. There may be evidence of human activity, but the natural features reveal minimal disturbances. (FHWA Interim Policy, May 18, 1995)

Description, Significance, Condition, Trends
The Corridor Advocacy Group (CAG) has identified natural qualities as the resource category of highest significance for this corridor. The natural qualities of the Katahdin area do define, to a large extent, the visitor experience as well as contributing to the quality of life enjoyed by residents of the area. Key resource groups include geology, hydrology, flora and fauna.

Geological qualities. The geological feature that dominates the Katahdin area is Katahdin itself. Marking the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, at 5267 feet, Katahdin is Maine’s tallest mountain.

AMC’s Maine Mountain Guide describes Katahdin as follows:

Katahdin, an irregularly shaped mountain mass, rises abruptly from comparatively flat country to a gentle sloping plateau above treeline. It culminates on its southeastern margin in an irregular series of low summits, of which the southern two are the highest. The peaks are 0.3 miles apart, and Baxter Peak (5267 ft.) to the northwest is the higher of the two. From the southeastern South Peak (5240 ft.), a long, curved, serrated ridge of vertically fractured granite, known as the Knife Edge, hooks away to the east and northeast. About 0.47 miles from South Peak, this ridge ends in a rock pyramid called Chimney Peak. Immediately beyond Chimney Peak, and separated from it by a sharp cleft, is a broader rock peak, Pamola (4919 ft.), named for the Indian avenging spirit of the mountain. To the north, the broad rock mass of Hamlin Peak (4756 ft.) dominates the plateau or tableland, which ends in the series of low North (Howe) Peaks (4750-4612 ft.).

Mountains south and west of Katahdin include the Brothers, Mount Coe, Barren, the Owl. To the north and west lie Traveler, the Turners, Sugarloaf, and Mount Chase (among many others).

Hydrological Qualities. Significant hydrological features in the Katahdin area include streams, rivers, and lakes that make up the upper Penobscot River system. (The Penobscot River basin as a whole, draining an area of approximately 8,750 square miles, is the largest river basin lying wholly within the State of Maine.) Although many branches and the main stem water flows have been altered over time to support the movement of long logs and pulp from forestlands in the upper reaches to mills below, for the most part waterways retain their original natural character. Some, the East Branch and its tributaries for example, are in the pristine condition they have enjoyed since the last glacier receded from the landscape as much as 12,000 years ago.

The Maine Rivers Study undertaken in 1982 by the Maine Department of Conservation working in collaboration with the United States Department of the Interior found the following:

For the East Branch of the Penobscot River:

  •  One of the greatest concentrations of geologic and hydrologic features in the state.
  •  Historic habitat for Pale Green Orchid, Auricled Twayblade, and other rare or endangered species.
  •  Farthest inland fishable population of Atlantic Salmon.

For the West Branch of the Penobscot River:

  •  Highest variety of geologic, geomorphic, and hydrologic features in the state.
  •  Important nesting and wintering areas for bald eagles.
  •  One of the state’s highest quality fishery resources.

Several tributaries, including all tributaries within Baxter State Park and a number of East Branch tributaries outside the park, achieve highest classification (AA) under Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection River Classification system. With respect to AA tributaries: “The habitat is characterized as free flowing and natural. The aquatic life, bacteria, and dissolved oxygen content are as naturally occurs.”

The Maine’s Finest Lakes Study prepared for the Maine Critical Areas Program in 1989 assigned “outstanding” or “significant” ratings to natural features associated with lakes in the Katahdin area, including: Katahdin Lake (“outstanding shore character”), Grand Lake Matagamom (“outstanding wildlife and botanic resources”), Millinocket Lake (“outstanding wildlife resources”), and the Debsconeags.

Flora and Fauna. The Katahdin area is heavily forested, mixed hardwood and softwood (spruce and fir), with dominant species relating to elevation, soils, hydrology. Portions of the area have been harvested multiple times over two centuries. That said, natural regeneration continues to return these lands to their forested state through a somewhat predictable natural succession of species being re-established following harvesting cycles. In these respects as in most others, the areas forest lands share the characteristics generally found in Maine’s “north woods.”

The Maine State Forest Assessment and Strategies prepared by the Maine Forest Service in 2010 offers the following points with respect to the significance of Maine’s forests:

  •  Maine has the largest contiguous block of undeveloped forestland east of the Mississippi; this includes approximately 10.5 million acres of unorganized territory which remain largely undeveloped forestland.
  •  The resilience of our forest ecosystems: Maine forests have been harvested for wood products for over 200 years, yet 90% of the state remains forested – the highest percentage in the country.
  •  The diversity of Maine’s forests: Maine has 39 commercial trees species – this contrasts with other timber producing regions which are dependent on just a few.

Forestlands and river/lake systems provide exceptional habitat for aquatic and land animals.

A large portion of the land through which the Byway runs is privately owned and held for timber production. “Natural” (by the FHWA definition) timber stands are few and far between. We must be careful to explain the “working landscape” concept to Byway travelers.

A range of agencies and regulations which have been put in place over the past 40 years to protect the integrity of natural systems in the Maine hinterlands are currently under review. Substantial modifications to these regulatory systems could impact natural systems in the future.

Conservation interests have moved to protect vast tracts of land in the Katahdin area over the past several years. Although many easement-based conservation projects do allow and even encourage on-going timber harvesting, easements often require operators to use sustainable practices intended to protect natural systems.

Relevant Projects/Initiatives

  • Keeping Maine’s Forests
  • Land conservation projets.

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