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UMPI garners $95,000 in EPSCoR sustainability grant funding

A team of professors at the University of Maine at Presque Isle has received $95,000 in grant funding from the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research [EPSCoR] to continue a wide range of research on the Aroostook River Watershed and its sustainable development.

This is the third year in a row the team has received funding from EPSCoR, a program under the auspices of Maine’s Office of Innovation. EPSCoR grants are awarded by the National Science Foundation to states that are typically not targeted for research grants. The funding UMPI has received – which totals $236,000 and includes a $75,000 grant last year and a $66,000 grant the year before that – is part of a larger grant led by the University of Maine in Orono and the University of Southern Maine. The University could potentially receive funding for a total of five years.

The UMPI research team is using the grant funding for its project Assessing the Feasibility and Sustainability of Renewable Energy Production in the Aroostook River Watershed through Research and Stakeholder Partnerships. 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 is doing during this grant year involves evaluating the potential of grass biomass production for central Aroostook County using the watershed as a sampling space and the community of Fort Fairfield as a way to focus on one stakeholder municipality. The project will include coordinating efforts to locate and establish up to 10,000 acres of grassland, and evaluating the potential ecological impact, or benefit, to grassland birds.

This year’s 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; and Dr. Chunzeng Wang, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Science. Also on the team is David Vail, the Adams Catlin Professor Economics, Emeritus, at Bowdoin College.

“We’re very excited to have this research project receive a third round of funding at 100 percent of our funding request. That is a testament to how much our work is meeting the intent of this research program, which is to conduct research in a way that fully engages community stakeholders,” Dr. Johnston said. “We look forward to many discussions with community members, and think this research will lead to energy, land use and economic benefits in the Aroostook River Watershed.”

As in past years, the team is collaborating with many state and regional stakeholders and will be hiring several undergraduate and high school students to help in conducting this research. The project will be providing some workforce development through a GIS workshop that will be held for local community members in May 2012. Researchers will be conducting outreach to the local schools by offering a 2012 summer workshop for teachers focused on incorporating research from the project into local curriculums. They also plan to make presentations to high school students and their teachers in Presque Isle and Fort Fairfield about their research and opportunities for collaboration.

Researchers will be working with several stakeholders throughout this study year, including the City of Presque Isle, 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 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.

As they have done for the past two years, each research team member is taking the lead on a different component of the project. Dr. Johnston will continue to work on ecological aspects of current and proposed new grasslands and evaluate the potential impact to grassland birds. Dr. Wang will continue his work on estimating available acreage for grass biomass purposes and classify that land (i.e., fallow, pasture, hay). He will use satellite imagery and USDA aerial images to accomplish this work. Putnam will focus on engaging stakeholders, local farmers, business workers and other individuals on efforts related to the project including surveying, interviewing and outreach efforts.

Dr. Vail will begin collecting data through various survey instruments to conduct an economic analysis focused on the potential for grass biomass production in the area. Dr. Sebold will continue exploring historical land use patterns of the region, and focus on how to use local historical knowledge as a way to engage stakeholders. The team as a whole will develop and test hypotheses about how people view future landscape change.

“We are so pleased to have our UMPI research team receive EPSCoR funding for the third year in a row,” UMPI Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Sonntag said. “This is significant STEM-supporting work that is driven by our faculty and it is having a significant impact on our community. Our proposals have been positively received each year, and reflect the strength of our faculty and the work they are doing. Without highly qualified and well trained faculty, this sort of work and the grant dollars it brings to our community is simply not possible.”