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Janet McMahon's career has taken her to uncharted territory--and she'd like future generations to have the same opportunity.
McMahon '79 is a surveyor of sorts, though that may be an oversimplification of expertise that was influential in designating the first ecological reserves on state lands in Maine. She has combined stints inside and outside state agencies and private conservation groups, including serving on the staff of The Nature Conservancy. She did much of the survey work for the original Maine Critical Areas Program that led to major land-preservation acquisitions such as the Nahmakanta Lakes area and Donnell Pond.
The daughter of a food service director whose career moved the family from Buffalo, N.Y., to Hawaii, Virginia and Connecticut, she came to Mayflower Hill to study biology and geology.
Never one to stay put, she set out on her first scientific expedition as a junior, serving on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute research vessel Westward. After graduation McMahon landed an internship with the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, a worldwide educational institute then sending "missionaries" to remote fishing villages in the northern Maritimes.
"We were supposedly teaching them conservation, but these were people who caught and grew their own food," she said. "They had a thoughtful approach to living and were amazingly tolerant of us. It was the best job I ever had."
Even though she settled in Maine following stints in Labrador the Caribbean, her early experiences provide a global perspective appropriate to her specialty: surveys of wildlife and natural resources. In the mid-'80s she returned to school, earning an M.S. in plant ecology at the University of Maine. She found a niche in the quaternary studies department, a program that deals with earth science since the departure of the glaciers. Once obscure, the science is now at the heart of research on global climate change. "It's cutting-edge stuff," McMahon said.
More recently, she's focused on the remaining roadless, unfragmented parts of Maine that retain significant plant and animal biodiversity. While Maine is unique in the Northeast in having such large tracts, it is losing them at an accelerated rate.
McMahon is concerned that the already protected reserves are too small. Large blocks of the Maine woods are up for sale, and "the window isn't open very wide" for conservation buyers, she said. The leading alternative use, second-home development, "is the biggest waste of resources on this planet. And I don't apologize for saying that."
Along the Maine coast, large blocks of land are fast disappearing. McMahon recently discovered that the largest tract south of Bar Harbor, some 5,000 acres, is in her own town of Waldoboro. "I've lived here for years, but I didn't realize that. It's amazing what you can do with maps, overlays and satellite images," she said.
For now, she's content as a freelancer, working on a variety of projects--currently in Wiscasset, the Downeast Lakes area and the Allagash--while getting along without an answering machine (she does use e-mail). She enjoys living in the woods with her husband and two daughters and cultivates simple pastimes such as fiddle playing ("I really wish I'd taken music at Colby").
In her reports she aims at more than accurate scientific detail. A 1994 study she wrote on the Medomak River Watershed--her home ground-- displays an inviting writing style and elegant illustrations. It's as much local and natural history as straight science. "I've learned not to approach it in a technical way," she said. "I aim so people will read it and not want to put it down."
--By Douglas Rooks '76
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