By JOE RANKIN
Forests for Maine’s Future Writer
At one time or another we’ve all wished we could see into the future, to get just a glimpse of the ways our lives might unfold if we take this particular job, or buy this house, or marry that person or go to that university.
The same holds true for towns when it comes to permitting development projects or land trusts campaigning to protect parcels of land. There’s no real way to see how it’s all going to play out, how the pieces fit together over time, how the puzzle resolves into a picture.
But for some Maine towns at least, that may be changing.
The Sustainability Solutions Initiative at the University of Maine’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center recently debuted a revolutionary new mapping service that offers the potential for avoiding some of the conflict in land use decisions by letting those involved compare the suitability of land for various uses, and that also allows those involved to see how different scenarios might play out over time.
The mapping tool — the Maine Futures Community Mapper — was nearly five years in the making. It ranks — using graduated color shadings — the suitability of land for development, forestry, agriculture and conservation in two Maine watersheds, the Lower Penobscot Watershed and the Casco Bay-Lower Androscoggin River Watershed.
The maps cover 4.2 million acres, approximately 20 percent of the state, including its two most densely populated areas: metro Portland and Bangor.
One unique feature allows users to overlay the maps on top of each other to see where there are potential areas of conflict, between, say, development and conservation. Or, conversely, to see the possibilities for meeting multiple goals, such as forestry and conservation.
“I think the Mapper can help individuals and groups that have different preferences for land use, different values or different goals to think about those futures in a common framework, as opposed to each thinking about their own piece of the puzzle,” said David Hart, a University of Maine professor of ecology and director of the Sustainability Solutions Initiative.
By rating land by how suitable it is for various uses and showing it on easily accessed online maps, the website provides a “proactive approach to planning,” in a way not available before, said Spencer Meyer, an associate scientist in the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests who received his doctoral degree through the Sustainability Solutions Initiative and led the team that developed the Mapper.
“By the time a ‘For Sale’ sign goes up on a piece of forestland and it’s slated for development it’s too late, really,” said Meyer. “Instead, with the Mapper you can identify the places that are likely to get developed or use it as a way to incentivize development in a different area instead. But knowing where these places are in advance is really important.
“We recognize we need economic development. This state craves economic development. That’s why it’s important not to make this an us-versus-them thing. It’s hard to make progress when you are contentious. This project brought together people from all sides of a land use issue in an attempt to find common ground and move forward.”
Its creators say the Mapper will be especially helpful to town planners and comprehensive planning committee volunteers; to economic development agencies and the developers themselves; to land trusts and conservation groups trying to figure out how to best use their limited funds; to woodland owners looking to buy more land and would-be farmers trying to figure out where the best spots for growing crops are located.
Not coincidentally, the project had its genesis with some of those same types of people.
“People came to us and said, ‘this would really help us,’ ” remembers Hart. “They were all saying ‘we’re having trouble finding what kind of future we should be aiming for, where land could be used for many things.’ They said they needed a tool to help them aim for the future they want.”
The project was an ideal fit for the Mitchell Center’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative, which is funded by a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The Initiative is dedicated to developing real world solutions to problems and challenges faced by Maine people and communities. The NSF grant grant to Maine EPSCoR (the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) funded the on-the-ground research, while an additional grant from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation helped pay for the website development.
The project team focused on two watersheds — the Lower Penobscot and the Casco Bay-Lower Androscoggin. These watersheds were identified in a nationwide U.S. Forest Service study as places where privately-owned forests are very much at risk from development and suburbanization in the coming decades.
They then asked a basic question: what makes land more, or less, suitable or desirable for development, forestry, agriculture and conservation.
To get those answers they went to people involved in those activities, convening separate workshops with people working in each of those constituencies: municipal economic development specialists and real estate agents; foresters and mill procurement people; farmers and Cooperative Extension personnel; land trust officials and ecologists. In all, some 75 “stakeholders” helped develop the criteria that would eventually end up in the Mapper.
Meyer said involvement of those stakeholders was essential because they’re the ones making decisions every day that affect land in Maine. And getting their input up front gave the project more credibility with potential users. “It wasn’t just the University of Maine doing it on their own, it was business leaders and thought leaders putting their input into it,” he said.
When it came to development, the team learned that what makes property desirable is location near a good road, a population center, services such as sewer lines and hospitals, and a buildable site. From the forestry folks it was things like easy access to markets for wood and good soils for growing trees. For conservationists and ecologists it’s things like unique natural features or ecosystems or lands strategically situated for recreation.
After the team listened to each group they followed up with yet another workshop with participants from all the focus groups. Sort of a “here’s what we heard you say, did we hear it correctly?” workshop. The focus groups’ input was then combined with other information to produce the maps that are at the core of the website.
The maps rate land in the two watersheds in terms of its suitability for development, forestry, conservation, and agriculture. They show areas where there is little chance of conflict with development, and where conflicts could arise, between conservation and development, say. But they also show where there are opportunities to meet multiple goals: conservation and forestry, perhaps.
And, here’s the really neat thing — in addition to allowing you to see how things stand today, they offer a glimpse into several possible futures looking out more 30 years, depending on variables such as population growth and different levels of emphasis on economic development and environmental conservation. You can look at how your town or region might look with high population growth and an increased emphasis on environmental issues, say. Or low population growth and more emphasis on economic development.
Many people, when they pull up the Mapper on their screen, zero in on their town, even their neighborhood. That’s natural. We look to home first. But the Mapper also encourages us to zoom out, to take the broader view of our landscape, Meyer said. In a state where planning too often stops at the municipal boundary, the mapper could facilitate more regional planning efforts.
David Hart, the director of SSI, said one of the “ways this tool will create a brighter future for Maine is if it helps people talk sooner about their different values. It won’t make the different values go away, but they might be able to think proactively about how to seek common ground and there might be more win-win outcomes rather than lose-lose outcomes.”
Because it’s such a visual tool, the mapper allows people to make connections they wouldn’t otherwise, said Hart. “As opposed to talking about things in lofty terms or the abstract, you stand next to a map and look for ways to find common ground,” he said. “I have seen people look at maps and then look at the landscape, and sometimes this enables them to stop thinking about an arbitrary boundary.”
If Meyer’s team had just done its research on the suitability of land for various uses that would have been an academic exercise, but in creating the Mapper they created a tool that allows anyone to see the landscape of today and envision possible landscapes of the future.
The guy that helped them do that is Stephen Engle of the Center for Community GIS in Farmington, a firm that does high-end internet mapping work for clients across the northeast and eastern Canada.
Engle said his organization acted like a general contractor building a house, taking the data the UMaine researchers compiled and assembling a team of interactive mapping specialists and programmers to do the work. The team included CCGIS personnel, independent subcontractors and the GreenInfo Network of San Francisco, Calif. The work took nearly two years. “It was definitely one of the more challenging projects” CCGIS has done, said Engle. There were a lot of parts to it and “a tremendous amount of quality control and checking that needed to be done.”
Engle said he believes one of the website’s strengths is that “it does not reveal any single right answer” to a question. He acknowledges that many may find that challenging, but he believes it “broadens the debate and discussion” about what is the most suitable use for land.
Theo Holtwijk is in charge of long-range planning and economic development for the town of Falmouth. He was one of the people who gave his input on development values.
Holtwijk said the mapper will be valuable for Maine municipalities updating their comprehensive plans — the plans that lay out the town’s vision for its figure and how it wants to make that vision unfold.
He said he recently used the Mapper to take a look at Falmouth and found that areas of conflict between conservation and development covered much of the town. When that’s the case, he said, communities will have to “tease out the highest conflict areas” to work on. “There’s a refinement opportunity” there, he said. And communities will need to supplement the Mapper with their own local knowledge. “It’s another arrow in the quiver,” he said.
Sally Stockwell, the director of conservation for Maine Audubon, participated in developing the criteria for conservation. The Mapper, she said, “provides a lot of land use information all in one place that is readily accessible and digestible.”
The information “can help people see and understand where the valuable natural resources are in their communities and how future activities, including fishing, farming, forestry and development — can be planned and built to draw on these resources with minimal impact,” Stockwell said.
Stockwell said many people and communities struggle to imagine how decisions today help create a future beyond their lifetimes. The Mapper can “help people visualize this in a meaningful way, both within their town and across town boundaries.”
The Mapper is already winning recognition. Meyer and his faculty advisors, Rob Lilieholm, an associate professor in UMaine’s School of Forest Resources and the leader of SSI’s Alternative Futures Team, and Chris Cronan, a professor of plant biology and ecology, were awarded the University of Maine’s 2014 President’s Research Impact Award for their work developing the tool.
In announcing the award, UMaine President Paul Ferguson hailed it as “innovative” and “forward-thinking” research that resulted in a practical and groundbreaking tool that “will allow town planners, conservationists, developers and the general public to better understand and manage community assets — both in terms of conservation and economic development — now and in the future.”
Responding to the award, Lilieholm said the hope is that more information will “lead to improved land use decisions that maximize the benefits of new development and foster landscapes and communities that better meet the needs of Maine residents — both today and long into the future.”
The mapper is still very new. If it were a new car it would still have the showroom smell. But the website is getting an increasing amount of traffic as word about it spreads. In its first month already more than 450 people have visited the site.
Meyer said there have already been inquiries about expanding the mapper to cover other areas. There are no specific plans to do so at present.
But if there is enough interest, and a source of funding can be secured, “we would do more,” Meyer said. “We now can do it a lot quicker, faster and cheaper. It’s much easier to do at a regional level so we would not do individual towns, but larger areas.”
For Meyer the Maine Futures Community Mapper wasn’t just a research project or a technical challenge, but a way he could contribute to the people of the state of Maine, where he has lived and worked for years. “It’s about helping communities and individuals envision what their future could look like under different scenarios and letting them decide which version of the future looks best,” he said.
Joe Rankin writes on forestry and natural history topics. He lives in New Sharon