Lay of the Land
History and nature find harmony at the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge
At first look, the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge is like any other sanctuary in the state. Acres of dense forest are home to moose, birds, foxes, and other native species. But less than 25 years ago, the area held soldiers and nuclear weapons. As the Loring Air Force Base, the property was one of the largest bases for the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command and one of the largest nuclear weapon storage facilities in the nation. The base began operations in 1950 and was decommissioned in 1998. The U.S. Department of Defense divided the land and gifted 4,882.5 acres to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ecological Services Program, including a portion of the former weapon storage area. Some buildings and remnants of the land’s military use still remain. Today, the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge is both a wildlife sanctuary and a historic site.
The refuge is maintained with the help of a volunteer group, the Friends of Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, and a sole employee who has been on staff for all 21 years of the refuge’s existence, Kirk Cote. “They groom the trails in the winter, they help us maintain, they open the visitor’s center, they have a gift shop there,” says Keith Ramos, who manages the Northern Maine National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which oversees a number of federal refuges and 60 conservation easements across Aroostook County. The volunteers also lead individual and group tours around the refuge for a more immersive experience.
The transformation from what the land used to be to what it is today is unbelievable, says Ramos. Fencing and extra roads were removed, but there are still bunkers on the property that the public can explore. And, more recently, a trail was added that takes the public into the old historic weapons area. Since opening the new trail, the refuge has seen an increase in summer visitors, but it remains a haven for skiers and snow-lovers. “Our trails are fairly flat, so it’s easier for people to ski on, and they’re well maintained,” says Ramos. No matter the season, the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge is a sanctuary for history buffs, nature lovers, and Maine’s most iconic wildlife.