RANGELEY – Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust is entering the final phase of their effort to acquire land within the project area and is under contract to buy the 5,000-acre Tract 1 parcel with a closing date of June 30, 2023. RLHT anticipates closing on the easement on the Logans and North Shore tracts on the same date.
This project is a pioneering effort to conserve and restore fish and wildlife habitats of national and global importance. Land conservation projects typically include protection against development, which is just a starting point for this project. They intend to bring the lands and waters back to a condition approximating the pre-European settlement forest—the forest in which its fish and wildlife evolved.
Though much of the Kennebago seems to be unspoiled wilderness, there is a long history of manipulating the watershed’s natural systems to accommodate industrial forest operations, e.g., the log drives of yesteryear. Unlike the pre-settlement forest, which comprised primarily old-growth stands (150+ years old), today’s industrial forest is young and has undergone repeated harvests on short-cutting rotations. The Kennebago river and its tributaries show signs of boulder removal, channelizing, loss of structure due to previous log driving, and the absence of large wood inputs (from trees naturally falling into the water). Stream crossings are another potential hazard to a healthy aquatic ecosystem. A network of roads intersects the watershed, and culverts pose barriers to native fish species and macroinvertebrates. Moreover, there are clear signs that an entire half-mile-long segment of the river’s mainstem was redirected and relocated to accommodate the construction of a road in days past. RLHT is planning and acting now in response to the impacts of these interventions.
Land conservation and watershed restoration strategies are synergistic but operate on different time scales. RLHT will need both long and short-term strategies to take this into account. For example, riparian buffers (forests along the water) will eventually produce large wood inputs. Still, as they wait decades for that to occur, manual “chop-and-drop” wood additions can accelerate recovery and bolster climate resilience. Replacing road crossings is often the only solution to recover fish passage on any meaningful time scale. To put this project on a scientifically sound foundation, they have commissioned John Field of Field Geology to conduct a full geomorphological assessment of the watershed this year (2023).
For brook trout and other native fish and wildlife species, stream connectivity is critical. This is especially so for brook trout in complex systems like the upper Kennebago. Recent research, such as the brook trout study conducted by Dianne Timmons (NH Fisheries Biologist), shows that brook trout use stream and lake habitats in different life histories and travel farther than previously known. Road crossings that involve undersized, perched, and culverts in poor condition fragment critical brook trout habitat. Extreme weather events such as the July 3, 2018, micro-burst that produced six inches or more of rain on the upper Kennebago watershed are occurring with increased frequency and compound fish passage problems related to stream crossings. In the face of this climate-driven trend, most existing road crossings are barriers to fish passage.
RLHT is conducting instream channel restoration projects where feasible. As noted above, restoration of natural stream channels in a watershed the size of the upper Kennebago primarily involves cutting and dropping large wood into smaller streams (generally of 20′ bank-to-bank or less). In limited situations, re-engineering of larger stream channels may be feasible. They only began instream work last summer (2022) but are reporting early results. You should have seen the spawning trout that congregated last fall in the sections of Otter Brook where we had placed large wood!
Potentially relocating a segment of the mainstem river to its natural channel and restoring ecological function is a major commitment, but one we are exploring. They are working with John Field of Field Geology to address the need for in-channel restoration work on the mainstem of the upper Kennebago, including the half mile stream segment that has been moved and other stream segments that show signs of straightening and boulder removal.
Most of their restoration effort is focused on the 10,300-acre Kennebago Headwaters project area up to the Stetsontown/Seven Ponds township line. Of the river/stream segments outside the project area, those north (and upstream) of the township line are important to the river system’s connectivity and, properly designed, can potentially deliver significant benefits for the downstream fishery within the Kennebago Headwaters project area. Stream crossing work upstream of the township line could comprise as many as four crossings (of an overall project total of 16 crossings).
RLHT has four scheduled stream-crossing replacement projects for the 2023 season. They anticipate another eight stream-crossing projects in 2024 and another four in 2025. 2024 and 2025 projects may include as many as four road crossing replacement projects on the upstream lands.
Working with Trout Unlimited, they have identified several wood-addition projects in key tributaries within the project area. Those include an additional 1+ mile of Otter Brook, 1+ mile of Wiggle Brook, and 1+ mile of Bear Brook, with a wood loading rate of about 200 pieces every stream mile. They will collaborate with TU to identify, assess, and seek applicable permits for additional rounds of wood-addition projects to be completed in 2024 and 2025.