Saco Heath Preserve

The Nature Conservancy closed the Saco Heath Preserve to the public in April when things with the pandemic got serious. It’s now November, almost seven months later, and the Preserve remains closed. I spoke with Jon Bailey, the Southern Maine Preserves Manager of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), to find out what’s been going on at the Preserve while everyone has been away.

Some background: The Saco Heath Preserve is located in Saco, Maine, a short drive west I-95. Managed by TNC, the Preserve is the home of the southern-most raised (or domed) coalesced bog in Maine. Very specific, I know… It is the only place where you will find Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) and pitch pine (Pinis rigida) growing in this type of ecosystem and at this latitude. The Preserve is over 1,500 acres and consists of a 1-mile long multi-colored boardwalk that goes through a small portion of the bog. From this slightly elevated position, visitors are offered a unique experience, putting them right in the middle of this extraordinary environment they would otherwise not be able to appreciate. Due to its easy accessibility and the natural appeal of the bog, the Saco Heath is the most popular TNC site in the state of Maine.

Top left to right: Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) and pitch pine (Pinis rigida) (Images from Maine Natural Areas Program). Bottom: Multi-colored planks of wood create a boardwalk through the raised coalesced bog.

Located in York County, the most densely populated area in the state, it was hard to keep people away from the Preserve since the very beginning of Governor Janet Mill’s Stay at Home Orders. The orders began April 2nd, 2020 when we still knew very little about the novel coronavirus. People flocked to outdoor spaces to escape the stresses of the pandemic panic and probably because no one knew just how long this was going to last. Jon Bailey manages the Preserve and keeps track of visitation with a concealed motion detecting sensor next to the trail. Bailey became concerned when he noticed a significant uptick in visitation after the first Stay at Home Order was issued.

Public safety is the Preserve’s number one priority, so when the parking lot consistently filled to capacity, and when cars began to park along the side of the road and blocked driveways, neighbors and stewards of the Preserve realized an overcrowding problem had to be addressed. All levels of TNC staff and stewards, including the local fire and police departments, discussed at length various solutions to the problem they were currently facing. At first, they reduced visitor capacity by roping off half of the parking lot, but people would just park farther down the road and walk in. Even if there was a reduced volume of people allowed to visit at any given time, the boardwalk itself presented a unique challenge. When visitors would attempt to socially distance, some would inevitably step off the boardwalk and onto the bog to let others pass, harming the vegetation and putting themselves at risk of injury. Since the boardwalk is only three feet wide, half the social distancing recommended width, and due to traffic safety concerns, staff and TNC partners made the extremely difficult decision to temporarily close the Preserve. Ultimately, this ensures the longevity of this very special environment’s future, and it the ensures safety of the public and surrounding neighbors.

The Nature Conservancy is a science-based organization and is using the latest scientific developments surrounding the pandemic to help them inform how and when to reopen. With winter on the way and rapid rises in COVID-19 cases throughout the state, the Saco Heath Preserve will remain closed for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, the pandemic has created many positive outcomes and opportunities for the Preserve since April.

Preserve Improvements

The TNC, like many of us working from home, is taking advantage of the closure to complete some preserve improvement projects. Some positive outcomes of the temporary closure include a freshly graveled parking lot, a new informational kiosk, and boardwalk repairs. Most exciting is the expansion of the preserve! Land was acquired through a donation and private purchase, expanding the north side of the Preserve along Flag Pond Road and closing the gap between the previously disconnected southeastern parcel and the northwestern parcel. In total, 121 additional acres have been protected for habitat conservation in perpetuity.

Research and Signs of Life

With special permission granted by the TNC, some research is being conducted at the preserve. Studies in the heath include pitcher plant research and invasive slug monitoring using the citizen science app iNaturalist. Over the summer, vegetation was able to regrow around the boardwalk where repeated disturbance from foot traffic would normally occur. Finally, an increase in scat was noted on the boardwalk and trails, suggesting that animals were taking advantages of the dry path to cross the bog. Animals using the trails likely feel less threatened by humans who would otherwise be present more regularly.

The Saco Heath Preserve is temporarily closed (October 2020).

While the trails are currently closed, it is comforting to know that the Preserve is being well looked after by the people who care about it the most: the dedicated staff, volunteers, and stewards. Whenever the Saco Heath Preserve reopens, we can rest assured that it will be in better shape than when we last left it. To find out more information on the truly fascinating Saco Heath ecosystem, check out The Nature Conservancy and the Maine Natural Areas Program websites.

1 thought on “Saco Heath Preserve

  1. As always the pictures are beautiful. I learn so much about the areas you write about. Keep it up!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close