Baxter State Park as we know it today began to develop about 12,000 years ago as the Lauren tide ice sheet melted northward out of New England (Katahdin was once covered with glacial ice). Over the next 1,000 years the land that would become the Park developed a tundra ecology and the first human inhabitants left evidence of their presence. The following 1,000 years brought a steady emergence of forest growth:
- Contrasting Forest Ecosystems in Baxter State Park
"The development of the first forests in northern New England disrupted Paleo-Indian culture. Northern boreal forests of spruce and fir support relatively little herbaceous vegetation, and therefore offer little subsistence for gregarious herbivores like the caribou. Some of the large herbivores, such as musk ox and caribou, remained on the tundra, drifting gradually northward out of the region. Many other species simply died out, no longer able to find enough forage." ¹
Over the ensuing 8,000 years as the climate gradually warmed, the forests of northern Maine developed from the boreal forests now found further to the north to the spruce and fir dominated "Acadian" forest. This forest is characterized by poor or moderately drained soils, over compressed glacial till or areas of shallow soil over bedrock (Leak and Riddle, 1979). U.S. Department of Agriculture Bulletin 544 of 1917 offers a description of the earlier Park forests:
"…Spruce, birch, soft maples, white pine, hemlock , and balsam are the characteristic trees in mixture...The presence of black ash, which is usually accompanied by considerable balsam, denotes conditions bordering on the swamp type. The presence of sugar maple, on the other hand, denotes a transition to the hardwood lands. White pine of good quality formerly occurred in abundance in this type in both Maine and the Adirondacks… Spruce attains an intermediate development here, while birch and the better hardwoods are inferior in development as compared with the same species growing on the hardwood lands……Windfall is not uncommon, and as a result young even-aged stands of spruce are found occupying the ground where this has taken place".
A landmark study by Ralph S. Hosmer in 1902-3 in a Greenville area Township described a tract of "virgin forest" of 20 acres (even by the 1900's unharvested forest was rare) on sites similar to Baxter State Park. Over ninety percent of the stand was composed of 5 species, red spruce (65.4%), yellow birch (14.3%), sugar maple (5.7%), paper birch (4.1%) and balsam fir (2.7%).² The maximum diameter of spruce measured on the site was 27 inches. In most respects, this description would probably apply reasonably well to the forests of Baxter State Park around the start of the nineteenth century. Without question, human action over the ensuing decades has altered the forest mosaic in many ways.
¹ From a draft synthesis paper on the effect of forest practices in northern forest lands, C.R. Foss, L.S. Deming, S.F. Gage, Audubon Society of New Hampshire, 1992.
² Pg.79 " A Study of the Maine Spruce" by Ralph S. Hosmer, as part of the Maine Forest Commissioner's Report of 1903, Table 4.