Refuge is a local gem
It is time to get to know us if you don’t already. We get perturbed when after 20 years in existence one of our Friends’ group members mentions the refuge to someone and the response is, “What refuge?” So, with this new and first of many future articles about the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge (ARONWR) that I will write periodically, my mission is to (re) introduce it to you and encourage you to visit this gem in the Crown of Maine.
With that said, let’s begin by informing you that we are not a national park, national monument, animal rehabilitation center, animal rescue shelter, state park, campground, zoo, private conservation land, BLM or recreation area. What we are is a mosaic of existing or reclaimed habitats rehabilitated from 5,300 acres of the former Loring Air Force Base’s wilderness and munitions storage areas. The refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior. Its existence and mission is for the sole purpose of protecting and increasing the whole spectrum of wildlife species and varieties of wildlife habitats. There are over 560 wildlife refuges under management of the USFWS.
The regional headquarters for managing refuges in the Northeast, from Maine to Virginia, is in Massachusetts and we come under the auspices of the Northern Maine Refuge Complex based out of Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Calais, which also includes Sunkhaze NWR in Milford. The complex manager is Keith Ramos. Other than the three mentioned complex refuges, there are seven other national wildlife refuges in Maine.
Your ARONWR also has 2,400 acres of easement wildlife habitats throughout Aroostook County that refuge staff are responsible for protecting. Easements are specialty wetlands, or specific protected areas in agreement with the landowners.
The sprawling Loring Air Force Base in Limestone was closed in 1994.Visionary County leaders worked with our congressional delegation at the time to find reuses for the former Cold War base, including the wilderness areas not part of the former flight line, residential or industrial space. A National Wildlife Refuge was encouraged, and in 1998 the ARONWR came into existence. A non-profit 501c(3) Friends Group, a collection of volunteers, established themselves a few years later.
Our mantra is to support the mission of the USFWS at this refuge. One full time USFWS heavy equipment maintenance staff is assigned. Support maintainers from the complex are available if additional manpower is needed to supplement assigned staff or volunteer Friends’ labor.
Refuge perimeters are composed of three segments, known as units. The Loring Unit on Refuge Road is the largest and houses the nature center, headquarters and office building, as well as the maintenance shop and former weapons storage bunkers. The Greenlaw Brook Unit includes Chapman Pond. Both almost evenly divide the miles of trails that showcase varied habitats of wetlands, brooks, ponds, grasslands, early succession and mature forests.
A seasonal auto tour route should be completed this year for sunup to sundown vehicle touring on the Loring Unit. Parking lots for trailheads are maintained year round at both units.
The Greenlaw Brook unit is located on the West Gate Road. For the past two decades approximately 14 miles of multi-use, interconnecting trails were built and are meticulously maintained for the public to hike, snowshoe or ski on year round to enjoy nature viewing experiences.
The Madawaska Stream Unit off the Beaulieu Road in Connor remains wild with little human imprint other than a short seasonal road leading to a parking lot. It purposely has no trails and runs either side of the stream from the Madawaska Dam to Route 1.
I hope this encourages you to visit, use the trails or call for a tour. We have maps available and the ARONWR and Friends group have websites and Facebook pages.
Upcoming events: Every second Saturday of a month, the Friends sponsor a nature presentation for the public at the nature center/headquarters. On April 14 there will be a wilderness Easter egg hunt for kids, as well as Earth Day activities. On May 12th there will be a biologist-led vernal pool presentation and walk. Call the refuge at 328-4634 for more information.
Wayne Selfridge is retired from the Air Force, stationed at Loring AFB for 11 of his 23 years assigned to three different squadrons. He is a member of the Friends of Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, a past president of the group, and volunteers about 80 hours a month at the refuge.