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In 1886, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy concluded that all the land a person really needs is a rectangle of about 8 x 3 feet.  Here’s the story: Pakhom, a struggling farmer hears wondrous tales of the Bakshirs–a remote people who live amidst a bounty of fertile land.  For a small sum, the Bakshirs will sell to anyone, the area he or she can walk around in a day.  Pakhom seeks out the home of the Bakshirs and finds that all the tales are true.  

 

The Bakshirs tell Pakhom to start walking from any point he desires, but to return to the same point by sunset or he forfeits his money as well as the land.  If he returns in time, the land he circles belongs to him.  In his greed to take in a lovely lake, Pakhom is too far away as the sun sets.  He hurries; he pushes himself past all limits, and with a final burst of energy reaches his starting point, only to die of exhaustion.  And so, in the end, all the land he needs is that in which to be buried.*

 

Ovenbirds, on the other hand, have less complex needs than people.  They do not need to own their land to be happy.  They like to live in the woods, far from predators, with plentiful food.  One might think, for example, that a 30-acre parcel would be sufficient to support a wee ovenbird.  Indeed, thirty acres in the middle of an undisturbed forest would be plenty.  But what if someone put a cozy little house in the middle of the 30 acres?  And what if some roads went in around the parcel, separating it from other forest land?  Such changes wouldn’t bother the crows and raccoons, but they might pose some problems for the ovenbird.

 

As the size of forested parcels become smaller and smaller, more of the land area turns from being interior forest habitat into something known as “edge habitat.”  An edge habitat occurs anywhere two habitats come together.  Transitions between a field and a forest, or the sides of a road through a wooded area, are two examples.  

 

Animals that are adaptable to a large variety of habitats, or that favor forest edge habitat (such as raccoons, crows, and blue jays), can prey on interior forest animals from the edge zone.  Fragmentation of land is hard on creatures that depend on interior woodland for protection from such threats as edge predators, noise, light, and competition.  On forested land, although edge regions may penetrate as little as 200 feet into the woods, they become very significant as lot sizes decrease. 

 

It may not be surprising to discover that a square, 4-acre parcel of completely forested land, if separated by field or subdivision from other forest, is made up entirely of edge habitat.  However, it is quite surprising to find that cutting roads around a 30 acre forested parcel and putting a single, modest house and lawn in the middle, reduces well over two thirds of the area to edge habitat. Very little interior woods remain once 200 feet of edge are subtracted from around the house, lawn, driveway, and the outer edges of the property; what little remains is of poor quality – it is stretched out in thin pieces and its isolation from other interior habitat makes successful breeding difficult for a large number of species.

 

Many animals need significant blocks of continuous undeveloped land to grow, reproduce, and thrive.  Forty acres is on the small side to support, for example, hare, porcupines, beavers, wood thrush, and warblers.  The more we understand about the needs of the plants and animals around us, the better we can tailor our land use decisions to protect these creatures, if that is one of our goals.

 

We will not meet the goal of preserving a wide variety of wildlife habitats and a diversity of species if we zone most of our rural and forest land into 5-acre lots.  One of the stated purposes of many rural and forest zoning ordinances in Maine communities is to preserve wildlife habitat.  Yet, all too frequently these same ordinances provide for minimum lot sizes of 5 acres throughout the rural and forest zones.  Such a divided landscape, with cozy houses tucked among the trees, might look like it supports a healthy forest ecosystem (and the squirrels and jays would no doubt agree), but the moose, beavers, and ovenbirds will tell us otherwise. 

 

Of course, our village and town centers cannot be home to moose and beavers.  But, if we don’t think carefully about how we develop our remaining lands, then these animals may find themselves with nowhere to call home.  

 

Along with the growing awareness of how fragmenting land can adversely affect wildlife, is a growing set of tools for helping communities plan for protecting larger swaths of contiguous land.  For more information on the effects of habitat fragmentation, and what can be done about it, visit GrowSmart Maine at http://www.growsmartmaine.org and Beginning with Habitat at http://www.beginningwithhabitat.org/.

 

*How Much Land does a Man Need? is the title of a short story, written in 1886 by novelist Leo Tolstoy.


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