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UMPI garners $75,000 in National Science Foundation funding as part of EPSCoR sustainability grant

A team of professors at the University of Maine at Presque Isle has received $75,000 in National Science Foundation grant monies from the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research [EPSCoR] in order to conduct a wide range of research related to the sustainable development of the Aroostook River Watershed.

The research team will use the grant funding for their project Modeling Evolving Ecological, Cultural, and Economic Systems of the Aroostook River Watershed of Northern Maine for Sustainable Development. The Aroostook River Watershed, which is the most populated region in northern Maine, spans central Aroostook County and encompasses the communities of Presque Isle, Caribou and Fort Fairfield.

The work the UMPI team does this year involves studying the historical and present uses of the watershed area – and the impacts those uses have had on the region – and compiling that data into GIS map and database form. The project also focuses on the area’s existing environmental resources in two ways: through developing materials that promote the region’s non-motorized trails, and through studying the region’s grassland habitats to identify and promote the use of currently underutilized lands for bio-fuel production in a way that least impacts wildlife.

The researchers are collaborating with more than a dozen state and regional stakeholders and are hiring seven undergraduate students and one high school student to help in conducting this research. Members of the research team will be hosting workshops for local educators, city officials and community members about sustainable resource usage. Their hope is that engaging and educating citizens, landowners, municipalities and businesses about these issues will increase the use of best practices in the sustainable development of the watershed area.

The UMPI team, which is being led by Dr. Jason Johnston, Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology, includes Professor David Putnam, Lecturer of Science; Dr. Kimberly Sebold, Associate Professor of History; Dr. Chunzeng Wang, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Science; and Dr. Anja Whittington, Assistant Professor of Recreation and Leisure Services.

“This research is important to central Aroostook County because it recognizes that academic research is too often conducted without much involvement of stakeholders,” Dr. Johnston said. “By working with local communities, agencies and others interested in sustainable resource development from the start, we have identified research priorities important to them. The end result will be information that can be used to promote sustainable development of our resources. These products include identification of currently underutilized lands for bio-fuel production and non-motorized trail maps that would promote tourism. We hope our research will provide a base for others to pursue the sustainable development of natural resources and the promotion of quality of place.”

This is the second year that UMPI has received funding from EPSCoR, a program that is under the auspices of Maine’s Office of Innovation. EBSCoR grants are awarded by the National Science Foundation to states that are typically not targeted for research grants. Maine EPSCoR is overseen by the Maine Science & Technology Advisory Council, a statewide steering committee of 27 individuals from Maine’s education, research, and business communities, and state government. The funding UMPI has received in the last two years is part of a larger grant led by the University of Maine in Orono and the University of Southern Maine. Last year, UMPI received received $66,000 to begin working with stakeholders, and initiate research and GIS mapping of resources. The University could potentially receive funding for a total of five years.

This year, each UMPI researcher is taking the lead on a different component of the project. Dr. Johnston will lead lab and field work related to the grassland habitat study. This work will establish a baseline of the bird species present in grassland habitats right now and identify both the best management practices for developing those grasslands and whether maintenance or creation of new managed grasslands may increase habitat for grassland birds. Professor Putnam will study the prehistoric settlements and archaeologically significant points throughout the watershed area so these locations are not impacted by land development. Dr. Sebold will study the historical and cultural land use patterns of the region and how they have changed over time.

Dr. Whittington will lead the effort to develop promotional materials, which will include brochures and trail guides, on the region’s non-motorized trails. Dr. Wang will oversee the land parcel ownership mapping of the watershed area and create a GIS [Geographic Information Systems] database that links land ownership to land use. This database, which will incorporate the research conducted by Putnam and Sebold, would include several layers of information, including land owners, types of land uses, zoning and land use tables, past and pending development activities, and infrastructure types and locations.

During the project year, researchers will reach out to local educators by providing a day-long Sustainability Solutions Workshop in May 2011 for K-12 teachers in the central Aroostook County area. They also will hold a GIS training workshop to teach citizens how to collect GPS data and create GIS maps – in support of the development to map, publicize and promote the use of non-motorized trails.

Researchers will be working with several stakeholders throughout this study year, including the City of Presque Isle, the City of Caribou, the Town of Fort Fairfield, the Central Aroostook Soil and Water Conservation District, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, the Maine Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet bands and First Nations, and private and corporate landowners.

“This project is an excellent example of statewide collaboration around issues of sustainable development and the receipt of this National Science Foundation funding is a wonderful recognition of the in-depth research our faculty members are doing for the benefit of this region,” UMPI President Don Zillman said. “An especially exciting component of this work is how it involves a wide range of participants, from community agencies and organizations to educators, university students and high school students. We look forward to the positive and far reaching impacts this research will have on the region in the coming years.”