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Jessica Leahy – Profile

Sustaining Maine’s Family Forests

Say you live in rural Maine and you’re ready to retire, but you can’t make ends meet on your modest pension. Your only asset is your land, a large wooded parcel you inherited from your family. You want to keep it intact, but you also need the income. Do you harvest more timber, sell off house lots, or do something else?

This is only one of many dilemmas that may confront Maine’s 120,000-plus family forest landowners. And even though they each own parcels of 10 to 1,000 acres, their individual choices have a huge cumulative impact. Together, these households own a third of the land in Maine—5.7 million acres. The consequences of their decisions can ripple out across the landscape in unexpected ways.

Until recently, few people worried about the future of these nearly 6 million acres, which help protect water quality, provide wildlife habitat, generate tourism dollars, store carbon, and contribute to quality of life in many ways. Now, however, that’s beginning to change.

“There’s a lot of concern about increasing development pressure and Maine’s aging population,” says Jessica Leahy, an applied social scientist in UMaine’s School of Forest Resources. “We don’t know what these landowners are going to do with their property, or what the larger impacts of their decisions will be economically, socially or environmentally.”

No one has a crystal ball, of course, but Leahy and her SSI colleagues aim to create the next best thing. They are using a technique called agent-based modeling to develop computer simulations of how small forest landowners make decisions, and how these decisions might affect the future of Maine’s forests. Leahy’s team ultimately aims to design a new tool to help policymakers draft and revise laws and regulations that encourage landowners to manage their forests sustainably.

Agent-based modeling simulates how individual “agents,” in this case, landowners, interact with each other and their environment, and allows users to observe the larger effects of these interactions. Users also can test how changes in rules and regulations affect agent behavior and any subsequent effects on the environment.

In the first phase of the project, Leahy and her colleagues are running simulations to test the model and work out the bugs. They will then run simulations on 3,000 actual parcels of land over a span of 25 years. “Each of those 3,000 parcels has different forest conditions and a different household attached to it and random human events happening, so it’s quite a complicated model,” Leahy says.

To simplify things, Leahy and her colleagues are focusing on the landowner decisions that have the biggest impact on forest cover: harvesting timber and developing land. And to make sure the model provides relevant and useful information, they’re collaborating with key stakeholders throughout the process, including agencies that work with family forest owners in Maine. What these stakeholders most want to know is how changes in tax policy or environmental regulations affect landowners’ decisions about managing their forests.

“Once the model is developed, users will be able to ask it policy questions and see how this affects people and the environment,” Leahy says. “For example, we could ask if changing the tree growth tax law would benefit people economically and have an impact on keeping forest as forest.”

Right now, the model is in the earliest stages of development, the goal is a tool that will allow users to “see” how policy changes affect landowner decision-making and the landscape itself through computer graphics. These simulations will allow policymakers and others to observe these effects before they make actual policy changes.

Such tools are urgently needed. Twenty researchers from UMaine, Harvard, and other academic institutions around New England sounded the alarm in May 2010 in the report Wildlands and Woodlands. They noted that the region’s forests are being cut down faster than they can grow back for the first time in more than 150 years and called for a doubling of land conservation in New England’s remaining forests.

Leahy is among researchers who are seeking solutions to such challenges. Although her main research focus is conflict resolution between landowners and recreation users, she was drawn to SSI because of its emphasis on connecting knowledge with action. She observes that traditional research methods often result in technical reports that simply “sit on shelves” and are rarely, if ever, used.

“Many different threads in my life have led me to this work, but the one that strikes me is my commitment to the land-grant university as a concept,” says Leahy, who was born and raised in Alaska. “We’re here to educate the citizens of Maine and to do research that benefits this state and the people who live here. So the fact that I really care about the land grant mission and doing meaningful work is why I think SSI is so attractive. It’s solutions-driven, which is what land-grant universities were set up to do and should be doing.”

Leahy also is drawn to SSI’s commitment to educating the next generation of sustainability scientists. She is working with graduate students including Mike Quartuch, who will be studying a key group of family forest  landowners: those who own land but have limited financial resources. He will be investigating the information needs of this group and ways to engage them in the research process. “SSI gives us the freedom to ask these kinds of questions,” Leahy says, “which will enable us to train students to solve sustainability problems in entirely new ways.”

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