Maine, the Oak Tree State

The islands and cold, windswept coasts of Maine have traditionally been covered with spruce-fir forests, their dark, pointed profiles gracing countless photos and paintings. There are even some islands near Bar Harbor called the Porcupine Islands because of their spiky trees. But lately I have been noticing a decline in these forests and an increase in hardwoods.

I have been going to the same town in Hancock County, Maine for over 60 years. It is on a peninsula in Frenchman Bay. The islands and the part of the peninsula that faces west have forests that include spruce, fir, pine, striped maple and birch. This is an ecosystem that is adapted to cold climates. But just a little further inland and on the more protected coasts, the vegetation is primarily hardwood forests dominated by red oaks. The difference in microclimate must be quite small between these two vegetation types, so a small bit of climate change could lead to a change from one to the other; that is my theory.

Hardwoods among declining evergreens

For the past few decades, the spruces have been looking very unhealthy. The branches die from the bottom up, making the trees look thin and bare. Light green lichen covers the branches and light green moss called “old man’s beard” hangs from them. There are even some ghost forests where all the trees are dead and bearded with moss. This summer I visited one such area on an island where the dead evergreens had started to fall down and leave sunnier openings; I saw 20-ft. oak saplings growing among them. When I look at the islands and coastline from the water now, I often see gray and brown, sickly evergreens, with the brighter green of hardwood trees billowing up behind and among them. I expect soon the hardwoods will overtop the evergreens and take their place.

Oak seedlings

In the past, along the roadsides and in the cut-over woods, small spruces and firs would spring up and quickly fill the area. The little 2-inch spruce seedlings were like weeds to be pulled up around the house every summer. But this summer, 2017, something different happened. The roadsides and areas alongside the house were filled with little oak seedlings! Very few spruce and fir seedlings could be seen. I would guess climate change is the cause, but there could be other explanations.

When I ask people what is happening to the spruces, sometimes they say the trees are just reaching the end of their life span. That doesn’t make sense to me, since I can see many larger spruces around town. Another explanation is that the woods were all logged in the past and the trees are even-aged, crowding each other to the point where they thin themselves. Or maybe acid rain is depriving them of nutrition. Perhaps last year was a “mast year” when the oaks put out vastly more acorns than usual, so that could explain the numbers of oak seedlings. There just happen to be a lot of foxes in the area this year too; maybe they ate so many squirrels that the squirrels couldn’t make much of a dent in the acorn population. More likely, more acorns meant more squirrels, which meant more foxes. At any rate, the squirrels didn’t eat all the acorns. But that doesn’t explain the lack of spruce and fir seedlings.

I think I am seeing climate change at work.