Coming Home

Newly arrived on the UMaine campus, assistant professor Aaron Strong kept a promise and returned to Maine to help the state meet its sustainability challenges

By David Sims

When Aaron Strong was ready to leave home for college, friends and mentors of the 2001 Maine state high school debate champ wished him all the success in his educational pursuits, and strongly encouraged him to return to Maine to settle down and get to work after he was finished with his studies.

So, after completing his Ph.D. in environment and resources at Stanford with an eye trained on the human dimensions of sustainability challenges, Strong, the son of two Bates College professors and now a UMaine School of Marine Sciences assistant professor of marine policy, did just that.

Aaron Strong

“It feels really good to take the advice you wanted to completely ignore at age 18 in order to get the heck out and see the world, and then come back home to focus on big sustainability challenges at the scale at which people make decisions in their communities,” says Strong, whose September 12 Mitchell Center Seminar is titled, “Does the value of nature depend on whom you ask? Should it?”

“Value” is the key word with respect to Strong’s talk. As humanity has entered the Anthropocene, there have been growing calls for an increased recognition of ecosystem services—the values that natural ecosystems provide to humans—and for actions to protect those values.

“My interest in ecosystem services has been there throughout my dissertation work as an example of a new, institutional framework that’s being tried to guide environmental management that is at once exciting as well as fraught with problems,” says Strong.

“It feels really good to take the advice you wanted to completely ignore at age 18… and then come back home to focus on big sustainability challenges at the scale at which people make decisions in their communities.” —Aaron Strong

A central problem is the lingering concern that there are some things in the natural world that we shouldn’t or can’t put a dollar value on. But the idea of ecosystem services, such as the nitrogen cycling and purifying effects of wetlands, for example, is that having such landscapes and ecosystems “out there” does indeed have real value to human communities but not all those values are currently “monetized.”

It has been a divisive issue and both sides have been argued and counter argued for over a decade. But notes Strong, “Now it’s leaving the space of the academic debates and entering the realm of watershed alliances and land trusts and these kind of organizations who are trying to figure out what they want to do and why.” He adds, “And I view those organizations as key stakeholders in the natural resources that are ecosystem services. These are people who need to be at the table when making decisions about what the best ways to do this kind of management are.”

And this is particularly important from Strong’s perspective because, currently, federal mandates, including those from the White House, to include ecosystem services in environmental valuation as a basis for decision-making “is rapidly becoming a dominant paradigm as a form of sustainability solution.”

But, according to Strong, this top-down approach is entirely at odds with all of the history of what’s known as “common pool” resource management that first and foremost has to have some sort of buy-in for the community with respect to, for example, the forests and fisheries that everyone shares.

Lake with woods on shore
Forest soils provide the ecosystem service of filtering water.

“The motivation of this line of my work comes from the observation that there has not been a major voice advocating for the communities of stakeholders most directly involved with the development of the rules and guidelines for how we should choose the actual values of resources that provide ecosystem services,” Strong says. “And, to me, that’s a classic problem of environmental decision-making in line with a whole set of such problems that are really familiar to many of the people working with the Mitchell Center.”

Aligning with the Mitchell Center’s sustainability mission

Strong says another aspect of being able to return home to Maine, raise his kids, and work towards solving sustainability challenges for Maine’s communities was the opportunity to work closely with the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions.

“Had the Mitchell Center not been here I would not have been as attracted to the position,” he notes. “Not necessarily because of any one thing the center does, but its existence as a locus and focusing agent to bring people together from around campus to talk and share information about these important issues—that was really attractive to me.”

“Had the Mitchell Center not been here I would not have been as attracted to the position.”
—Aaron Strong

One of the things he’s most interested in doing in collaboration with Mitchell Center researchers is constructing decision support tools so that, for example, “We work with people in coastal communities to actually provide them with climate information and information on climate change that is functionally useful to them in their daily lives.”

Additionally, Strong hopes to help “expand the thinking” about specific curriculum components of sustainability education across the UMaine campus and, he says, “I think the Mitchell Center has a key role to play in that.”

Indeed, Strong is already in conversation with Mitchell Center director David Hart about how to, among other things, “overcome the silo effects” that can define academic colleges and departments and make it more difficult for people to collaborate on interdisciplinary projects.

Already, Strong has encountered an openness at UMaine with respect to such cross-campus collaboration. “I’ve been given advice by many current faculty that if you have an idea or an initiative and you want to run with it you probably can,” he says. This is in part true because the “scale” at which things operate in Maine is starkly different compared to larger, more populous states.

Notes Strong, “This is a state where you can know your legislators and the agency folks who are in charge of the decisions and you can work closely with them. And that’s appealing to me. I like and I want to operate on that scale because you can get things done, and in this work I want to make a difference in people’s lives.”