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Senator George J. Mitchell Center & Maine's Sustainability Solutions Initiative

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Researchers - Rob Lilieholm

E.L. Giddings Associate Professor of Forest Policy
School of Forest Resources, University of Maine
Faculty Expert Guide available

What problem/s are you working to solve?

I’m interested in strategies that can help humanity transition from its current unsustainable trend of ever-increasing growth and consumption to one that’s more sustainable over the long run. In short, a development path that focuses on improving quality-of-life instead of maximizing consumption and waste.

A critical first step in achieving this vision is improved land use. Toward that end, I’ve been involved in alternative futures modeling work for almost 20 years in the U.S. and abroad. This technique simulates how different land use policies, changing demographics, and other key variables could affect the landscape and communities in the future. It opens people’s eyes to the facts that we have a finite planet, and that the decisions we make today will largely determine the world our grandchildren will inherit.

In Maine, increasing development pressure, large-scale land transactions, and other forces are changing the landscape. Our SSI team’s work focuses on creating new tools and processes to help Maine communities plan economic development in more proactive ways in the face of this sweeping change.

What progress are you making toward solutions?

Our team has met with more than 70 leaders in economic development, conservation, forestry and agriculture in Maine to identify strategic opportunities and potential conflicts in land use. We’ve also gathered detailed spatial data on towns in the Lower Penobscot River Watershed and in the Casco Bay region around Portland.

We’re now developing alternative futures models that synthesize this expert knowledge and complex data to generate computerized maps that will help users identify land suitable for various purposes including development, conservation, and working forests and farmland. These models also will help users identify potential compatibilities and conflicts in land use.

Throughout this process, we’re working with stakeholders in the Lower Penobscot River Watershed and the Casco Bay region to develop future scenarios to test and to make sure that our models are relevant and useful.

How could your findings contribute to a more sustainable future in Maine and beyond? 

Planners and other policy makers, agencies, citizen groups like land trusts, landowners and others will be able to use our models and customize them to simulate future scenarios and evaluate trade-offs, economic and otherwise, of alternative land uses, rather than make what could be irreversible or costly mistakes.

By identifying areas suitable for different land uses, we hope to assist communities and individuals in making better decisions. Better decisions not only protect natural resources like working forests and water quality, but also enhance our communities and neighborhoods.

Why did you decide to join SSI?

I came to the University of Maine in 2006 after working on large landscape futures projects in California and Utah. I arrived shortly before discussions began on how to frame the National Science Foundation EPSCoR proposal that would eventually create SSI. Given the breadth of faculty interests involved, I saw that the themes of landscape change, forest management, urbanization and climate change could serve as an effective organizing principle through which to engage a diverse group of researchers and students in exploring ways to better leverage the state’s assets while sustain our high quality-of-life.

What’s the best part about collaborating on SSI research projects?

The best part of SSI is the incredible mix of talent and dedication. We’ve got top-notch faculty and students all working toward improving the social, economic and natural assets of Maine, for both current and future generations. Being part of this effort is truly an honor, and the highlight of my career.

Where’s your favorite place in Maine?

My favorite place in Maine is right here in my own backyard. Our family owns 16 acres on the banks of the Penobscot River in Hampden, and I enjoy managing the woods, tending the garden, and experiencing Maine’s natural beauty and seasons.

What’s your ultimate Maine experience?

Paddling an Old Town wood and canvas canoe loaded with gear, with no cell phone coverage and days to go before reaching a destination…

Mud season survival strategy?

Working in my woodshop, and reading gardening and boating catalogs by the fire.

What sustains you?

We live in the most exciting period in human history. Really. Never before have people been able to travel around the world, and have access to the vast array of human knowledge – acquired through centuries – available anywhere via the Internet. We all take this for granted, but sustaining this accomplishment is by no means assured. In fact, given widespread declines in the earth’s natural support systems, just sustaining, let alone improving, the human condition is our greatest challenge. Aldo Leopold, a forester and conservation visionary, summed it up best in the 1940s:

“We end… at what might be called the standard paradox of the 20th Century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

Aldo was right then. He is even more correct today. In my work, I hope to make some progress in developing more effective tools for meeting this oldest task.

Additional information about Rob and his team

Image Description: lilieholm

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Contact Information

Senator George J. Mitchell Center & Maine's Sustainability Solutions Initiative
5710 Norman Smith Hall
Orono, ME 04469
Phone: 207.581.3244E-mail:
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
A Member of the University of Maine System