Great Oaks Wilderness Sanctuary

Great Oaks Wilderness Sanctuary protects approximately 553 acres of mature forest in Parsonsfield, Maine, as forvever-wild.

This exemplary Northern Hardwood Forest, with prominent stands of red oak and eastern hemlock, reaches from the summit of Dearborn Mountain down to the shoreline of West Pond. As Maine’s newest forever-wild landscape, Great Oaks Wilderness Sanctuary is free to become a future old-growth forest, providing countless gifts for our relatives—both wild and human alike—for generations to come.

Three generations of the Lougee family have largely left the land to its own devices, resulting in a forest that is one of the oldest in southeastern Maine. In the mid-1900s, Arthur and Laura Lougee acquired this land, which past generations of their family had cared for. They passed along their deep respect and admiration for the forest to their children and grandchildren.

Laura and Arthur, both avid watercolor painters, captured the beauty of the land and its views in hundreds of paintings. Laura sculpted the plants and animals around her and even incorporated Nature as a medium, making spider web and mushroom spore prints. Their son, Jim, came to know every contour of this land, studying geology, botany, and entomology in his spare time to better understand its natural history. Jim once invited staff of the Maine Natural Areas Program to Dearborn Mountain and showed them a cove of exceptional old trees—beech, sugar maple, basswood, white ash, and hemlock—many over a century old and more than 100 feet tall.

Today, the only cutting in these woodlands has been for firewood. This approach led to the development of older forests with considerable structure, complexity, integrity, and beauty.

“It’s a really special place, in part because my brother Jim insisted that it not be logged in any way. He’d say, if a tree falls, let it lay down to rest and rot—that’s the way nature works.”

David Lougee

A conservation focal area

Great Oaks Wilderness Sanctuary is embedded within the 64,542-acre Pine River Matrix Forest Block, a priority area for conservationists as defined by The Nature Conservancy. Great Oaks Wilderness Sanctuary lies within the service area of two regional conservation partnerships (Saco Watershed Collaborative and Saco Headwaters Alliance) and a “Beginning with Habitat” Focus Area. The land abuts 8,500 acres of private timberlands conserved with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Moreover, another 400 abutting acres will join Great Oaks Wilderness Sanctuary as forever-wild.  A neighbor, who is part of Northeast Wilderness Trust’s Ancient Forest Society, has bequeathed their land to the Wilderness Trust. These 400 acres are also adjacent to the same 8,500-acre of conserved timberlands. Land gifts made by generous supporters are an important way to support wild Nature and further the forever-wild conservation work of Northeast Wilderness Trust.

Both properties will serve as important core habitat, integrating around 900 acres of old, wild forest into the mix of conservation types represented in the Pine River Matrix Forest Block. Today Great Oaks Wilderness Sanctuary is not only be protected from logging, motorized vehicles, and mechanized uses, there will also be no maintained trails or hunting while still remaining open to on-foot wilderness exploration.  This is “nature for nature’s sake” conservation in its most distilled form.

Old trees, rare plants, and headwater streams

The sandy loam soils of the Sanctuary favor beech, birch, and maple, with red oak and eastern hemlock often making up about a quarter of the canopy’s tapestry. The land hosts natural communities that are unusual for Maine, including talus slopes (loose rock with little plant cover sitting below cliffs) and Red Oak-Ironwood forests.

True to its namesake, the Sanctuary is home to thick, towering oaks, along with massive white pines along West Pond’s shore. Ample fallen trees, standing dead tree trunks, and hollow stumps and logs provide denning, foraging, and nesting habitat for a variety of wildlife, including weasels, songbirds, bears, and coyote. At least nine rare or threatened understory plant species are found on the land, including Douglas’s knotweed, Back’s sedge, blunt-lobed woodsia fern, small whorled pogonia, and Fogg’s goosefoot.

There are also notable water features, including an old pond once used for stocking fish—constructed long ago, the waterbody now functions naturally. Great Oaks Sanctuary has 1,500 feet of shoreline on West Pond with overhanging shade trees and underwater woody debris, features that benefit breeding fish and amphibians. There are also headwater streams of the Saco River watershed totaling one mile. With warming temperatures due to climate change, protecting headwater streams is one of the most effective and important means of improving water quality.

Photography by Jerry Monkman/Ecophotography; Video by Jerry Monkman/Reel Quest Films