Lake Effect

Fathoming the ecological, economic and social interactions for better planning

A major development is planned in a rural, lakefront town, sparking a heated debate among residents, developers, visitors, recreationists and environmentalists.

A remote fishing hole in a township so small it doesn’t have a name has become a haven for out-of-state boaters. Now the fear is that invasive plants soon will choke the shoreline.

An affluent suburb surrounding a pond once dotted with summer cottages has seen those camps converted to year-round homes requiring unanticipated services such as plowing.

On Maine’s lakes, these scenarios and the tensions they entail – between development and the environment, traditional ways of life and new forms of recreation, Maine natives and people “from away,” haves and have-nots – are all too real.

For Kathleen Bell, an associate professor of resource economics and policy at the University of Maine, the balancing act among economic, social and environmental systems is a rich research subject. Maine’s economy, demographics, institutions and climate are in constant flux. According to Bell, the state is at a turning point, and now is the time to study how these changes may impact Maine lakes and the uses they provide in the future. That chance has already passed in other parts of the country.

“Many natural resource management decisions are made in a reactive manner,” says Bell, the principal investigator on a three-year, interdisciplinary study of lake management, funded by a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It would be great to break that pattern, identify win-win opportunities and strengthen the adaptive capacity of our landscape.

“Great things will come from moving beyond the polarized perspective of development versus the environment, and redirecting energies,” she says.

Bell and her UMaine colleagues – Jessica Leahy, Stephen Sader and Jeremy Wilson of the School of Forest Resources; and Peter Vaux of the Sen. George J. Mitchell Center for Environmental and Watershed Research – intend to help various stakeholders, such as state agencies, communities and nongovernmental organizations, adopt more proactive approaches to lake management.

An interdisciplinary approach will allow Bell and her colleagues to explore the cumulative effects of system change.

Bell employs GIS data and modeling tools extensively to understand the spatial aspects of economic behavior. She has studied the economics of land use issues for years and helped develop spatial models of land-use change.

Her experience suggests that certain patterns of development, policy impacts and landowner responses aren’t really surprising, yet they seem to continually take communities throughout the United States by surprise. Hard lessons seem to be learned again and again.

By considering the social, economic and environmental aspects of lake resources, Bell and her colleagues hope to improve lake management and to help Maine communities avoid those hard lessons.

Their research considers changes in the built environment around lakes, recreational use of lakes, lake water quality, and the likelihood of invasive plant and fish introductions. It is being conducted at two scales: statewide assessments and community-based case studies, which offer distinct perspectives of management opportunities and challenges. The research includes interviews and physical surveys, the building of spatial databases that chart recent changes, and the use of those databases to model future changes.

By 2010, researchers hope to provide stakeholders with practical planning tools to support lake management, land use planning and economic development decisions.

The researchers take an objective view of sustainability as it applies to the economy, social concerns, the environment, recreation and tradition. The goal is to achieve joint resiliency of economic, social and environmental systems.

“Changes in housing around lakes are one focus of this research,” Bell says. “We are not antidevelopment. Rather, we are learning about why different housing patterns emerge on different lakes and exploring the extent to which these patterns interact with lake attributes, such as recreation opportunities and water quality.”

The community-based studies focus on 11 lakes in 20 towns and townships, from Aroostook to York counties. Whether small or large, all are “Great Ponds.”

The research team is collaborating with state agency staff, town managers and lake association members to determine what research, scientific data and planning tools will help them better manage their lakes.

“Maine lakes are unique ecological, economic and social assets,” Bell says. “These assets produce services that enhance Maine’s quality of place. We’re conducting research to better understand these services, and developing information and planning tools to help others think about the sustainability of these services in a changing landscape.”

The researchers are assembling data from numerous sources, including their community partners, to better understand the economic, social and environmental characteristics of lakes. Particularly challenging are data gaps, such as recreation and land use histories. The team is exploring innovative ways to begin to fill these gaps, including a collaboration with the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program, a citizen-based initiative.

Margaret Snell, a master’s student studying resource utilization in the School of Economics, and Christine Paluga of Mount Desert Island, Maine, an undergraduate in UMaine’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism Program, spent last summer interviewing community leaders to gather information. They asked about the role lakes play in the community; management challenges and uses over time; changes in residential development and water quality; and challenges of invasive plants and fish.

Concurrently, Paluga and Snell did their own survey of kayaks and motorboats, docks or moorings, shoreline landscaping and the type of buildings around each lake. Different lakes have distinct personalities. Their survey initiated a mapping of attributes related to this variation in character.

“We were trying to get a feel for what is going on at the lake, the relationship between development and recreational use,” Snell says. “Were there recreational conflicts? Do patterns of housing affect recreational use?”

Two other graduate student researchers involved in the project – Megan Tylka in the School of Economics and David Ellis in the Department of Wildlife Ecology – are studying water quality and invasive plants and fish, respectively.

Information the UMaine researchers collect, produce and share will provide a rich, layered picture of Maine’s Great Ponds. It will serve as the basis for a tool kit that lakefront communities can use as a guide to make sustainable decisions.

“By thinking more creatively about the interactions among economic, social and environmental systems, we can better support the resiliency of these systems,” Bell says. “Sustainable lake management is one of many opportunities to improve our economy and our environment.”

by Kristen Andresen
May – June, 2009