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Alternative futures Modeling technique helps communities visualize how, why landscapes evolve by Elyse Kahl
iPad visualization of future development

Photo illustration by Adam Küykendall and Michael Mardosa

Rob Lilieholm can’t predict the future. He can, however, work with stakeholders to envision and illustrate plausible scenarios of the state’s landscape based on current behaviors and planned uses.

To ensure Maine’s quality of place remains intact, the University of Maine forest resources professor uses alternative futures modeling to provide a glimpse of what the future may hold. Through historical and projected maps, Lilieholm acts as something of a Ghost of Maine’s Land-Use Future, helping residents visualize how and why landscapes evolve, what the implications might be and how citizen actions can influence those changes.

Lilieholm has witnessed that recognition by residents through his land-use planning research in Maine, where he is working to form a sustainable economic development pathway from Penobscot Bay to Baxter State Park that protects and leverages the region’s natural resources. He’s done the same in Africa, where he researched the effect of development on residents and migrating animals. The concept and methods were pioneered through earlier studies with the U.S. military in southern California and with dozens of communities in rapidly growing Utah.

The alternative futures modeling technique Lilieholm uses predicts how landscape conditions might change by depicting scenarios under various land-use policies, as well as socio-demographic, economic and biophysical catalysts of change. To create the models, researchers use remote sensing satellite data, logistic regression statistics, and expert knowledge models such as Bayesian belief networks.

Alternative futures modeling is, in essence, “understanding how today’s decisions affect tomorrow’s outcomes,” says Lilieholm, UMaine’s E.L. Giddings Professor of Forest Policy.

“We’re not good at recognizing incremental change,” Lilieholm says. “The slow changes through time — we don’t really perceive them. So if there’s a way that we can visually accelerate the process with maps and try to get a better handle on the cumulative effects and what might happen over time, then we can make better decisions.”

Alternative futures modeling is, in essence understanding how today’s decisions affect tomorrow’s outcomes.”
Rob Lilieholm

Visualizing future landscapes provides a common reference for decision making, allows stakeholders to assess current conditions and trends, anticipates opportunities and conflicts between uses, and offers a way to explore issues at multiple scales.

“Maps really resonate with people,” Lilieholm says. “When you bring a map into a town meeting, people immediately go to it. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t like a map.”

While in Kenya in 2005, Lilieholm attended a community meeting held by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). The institute had finished digitizing all the fence locations within two of the major wildlife migration corridors south of Nairobi National Park and released the maps at the meeting.

Kenya, which is home to some of the world’s greatest wildlife and large mammal migrations, is increasingly threatened by human pressures, including urbanization, mining, deforestation, fencing and agriculture, as well as climate change, Lilieholm says.

Photo of Rob Lileholm

Rob Lilieholm, the E.L. Giddings Professor of Forest Policy at the University of Maine, makes presentations statewide, across the country and abroad, and uses the Maine Futures Community Mapper developed at UMaine to help communities explore their future under alternative scenarios.

The dominant tribe people in the southern region of Kenya are Maasai pastoralists, whose culture calls for herding cattle while coexisting with wildlife, Lilieholm says. Historically, locals have migrated across large areas of land with their cattle, but the pastoral livelihood became less feasible over time as more fences, houses and roads spring-up across their traditional grazing lands.

“It was really amazing to see the reaction of people, because the maps really reinforced what they felt; what they thought was going on,” Lilieholm says. “But to see it in black and white; it spoke to the power of what you can do with technology and how you can help people visualize change.”

Since the meeting, the region’s officials put a program in place to inform residents about the importance of migration corridors, and programs are emerging to pay landowners to take down fences, either permanently or during key migration times, according to Lilieholm.

“We can’t predict the future, but hopefully we can use these maps to get people to think about the future and how they might change behaviors to try to tweak that landscape into something that will better meet their needs,” he says.

While education is key to making major land-use changes, Lilieholm thinks it may be too late for the area around Nairobi National Park — at least for some key wildlife species. Already, wildebeest populations have fallen precipitously, with the roads and fences already in place having a significant effect. He predicts that in 10 to 15 years, the park’s southern migration corridor will no longer be viable for both pastoralists and many species of wildlife due to increased population and development.

He recently wrapped up his own Kenya study funded by the National Science Foundation that began in 2008 with a team from Colorado State University and UMaine doctoral students Michelle Johnson and Spencer Meyer.

Similar to the work started by the ILRI, the project looked at how future development and climate change will affect the sustainability of pastoralists, wildlife and historic migration patterns in Kenya. The researchers modeled how wildebeest move across the landscape using hourly GPS tracking, as well as alternative future scenarios of development and fencing based on roads, distance to water and existing development density.

“Once we have these models of how the animals behave, we can then start to explore the effects of future landscapes,” Lilieholm says. “We can take the current landscape and basically move it through time with different scenarios of fencing and development. Then we start to get an idea of how the animals, based on their behavior today, might behave on these new landscapes that they haven’t seen and won’t see for 20, 30 or 40 years.”

Photo of Michelle Johnson and Spencer Meyer

Members of the Maine Futures Community Mapper team included doctoral students Michelle Johnson and Spencer Meyer. Johnson now works for the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in New York City. Meyer is a post-doctoral researcher at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

By modeling how wildebeest migrate, researchers can start to understand how wildlife will react to changing human and natural systems by developing a range of alternative futures, engaging stakeholders, identifying areas for critical needs and anticipating future conflicts. Ecotourism is an important economic driver in Kenya, Lilieholm says, so protecting wildlife is a key factor for economic growth.

“We talk a lot about how to do science that actually makes a difference. We want to make sure that what we’re doing is relevant,” he says, adding that one of his colleagues in Kenya was recently elected governor to the study area south of Nairobi. The team hopes to use its connection to inform policies that are taking place due to rapid population growth.

“We’re hoping we can combine efforts to better protect these open migration corridors while at the same time fostering development that better serves human needs — things like access to clean water, sanitation, education and health care,” Lilieholm says.

We can’t predict the future, but hopefully we can use these maps to get people to think about the future and how they might change behaviors to try to tweak that landscape into something that will better meet their needs.”
Rob Lilieholm

Unlike Kenya, development pressures in Maine are far less pressing, creating different issues and challenges.

“In one sense, it lessens the urgency because we’re not seeing high levels of development pressure in many parts of Maine — in fact, we’re seeing depopulation in many rural areas. Yet these limited growth pressures in one sense makes development even more important to our future because growth can either add or subtract from an area’s quality of life,” he says.

“In Maine, we have to be very careful that what we do has a net-positive impact.”

To aid in future land-use planning, Lilieholm and a team of UMaine researchers created the Maine Futures Community Mapper, an online tool for communities, businesses and citizens to explore the state’s future under alternative scenarios. The mapper helps Mainers identify locations that are most suitable for future development, conservation, agriculture or forestry; identify potential conflicts and compatibilities between different land uses; and envision future landscapes under different possible scenarios.

Meyer, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, led the mapping tool development over four years with team leader Lilieholm; Christopher Cronan, a professor of biology and ecology; and Johnson, who now works for the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in New York City.

The tool was developed with the belief that Maine’s most important asset is its quality of place, with local communities at the heart. The goal is to help ensure a future in which Maine people can count on vibrant communities with vital economic development and a sustainable natural resource base, according to the researchers.

Since 2010, the team has involved more than 75 community stakeholders, including policymakers, conservationists, farmers, foresters, business leaders and scientists.

“It’s important to engage with stakeholders; it’s a whole other world. It’s like driving down the highway and taking your hands off the wheel,” Lilieholm says. “It’s easy to stay in your office and work with your grad students, but by doing that you might be creating something with limited impact.”

Graphic of four Visual Models showing suitability rank of major land uses in maine

Rob Lilieholm’s futures modeling team engaged dozens of stakeholders from across the state to develop suitability rankings for major land uses in Maine. The process combined expert knowledge and over 100 spatial datasets using Bayesian networks. Shown above are land suitability rankings for four major land uses in the Lower Penobscot River Watershed. Click for full image.

The mapper looks at two large watersheds in Maine — Casco Bay/Lower Androscoggin, which includes Portland and Lewiston; and the Lower Penobscot River, which includes Bangor. Both watersheds cover about 4.5 million acres and were identified in 2006 by the U.S. Forest Service as being among the top 15 watersheds in the U.S. that are expected to experience major conversions of forest cover to residential land uses.

By focusing on watersheds, or ecosystems that contain land that drains downhill into a river basin, the researchers can examine the ecological impacts of land use, such as the effect of urbanization on stream conditions.

Lilieholm says the tool works well at showing areas with potential conflicts, such as around the Bangor City Forest and Bangor Mall, but the more useful application is predicting future problems.

“The value of the tool is that we can leapfrog ahead in time and anticipate where we’re going to see future development pressure so that, if some of those areas are ecologically sensitive or have high-value agricultural soils, folks can explore protection options before the survey stakes are driven in the ground,” he says. “By then, it’s probably too late.”

While meeting with stakeholders, the researchers found developers want to avoid conflict as much as possible and seek certainty when investing time and energy into developing a site.

“We never tell anyone what to do, we can’t tell anyone what to do,” Lilieholm says. “But we can give them better information to make better, informed decisions.”

Lilieholm cautions against costly unplanned and scattered development occurring in both Maine and Kenya.

“In Maine, many of us aspire to have some acreage with woods and pasture, but collectively, when we do that across the landscape, it can impose a lot of costs,” he says, citing expanded road networks or additions to power, sewer and water lines, which end up costing taxpayers.

The 2006 Brookings Institution study, “Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places,” estimated the state spent about $200 million to build new schools in response to population dispersal at the same time student enrollments were declining.

New development on the outskirts of municipalities while downtown storefronts sit empty is another common example of scattered development in Maine, Lilieholm says.

“Are there ways we can encourage those town centers to continue to be part of the economy instead of becoming derelict? That’s a real challenge we face across the state,” he says.

Lilieholm and his team have found areas of land, especially in the lower Penobscot, that are highly suitable for development over other uses.

“If there’s a way to encourage development in those areas that are near services like schools, sewer and power, then we take pressure off surrounding areas while at the same time better utilizing the infrastructure that’s already in place,” Lilieholm says.

For four years, Lilieholm has been involved with the Acadian Program in Regional Conservation and Stewardship. The summer internship program, which is held at the Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park, brings together young professionals from around the world to learn about large landscape conservation using Down East Maine and the Lower Penobscot River Watershed as a living classroom and laboratory.

After reviewing modeling work by Lilieholm’s team and touring the region, students in the program helped create the Bay-to-Baxter Initiative, a regional conservation and economic development corridor from Penobscot Bay to Baxter State Park. The proposal aims to leverage the Penobscot’s natural amenities for economic growth. It combines efforts such as river restoration, the Katahdin region’s national park proposal, Baxter State Park and the Appala-chian Trail, which Lilieholm says are all critical elements of a regional tourism sector, but aren’t well promoted or connected to economic development.

“Even our own work; we weren’t really looking at the river, we were looking at the land. The Penobscot River Restoration Trust was focused on the water and not looking at the surrounding land,” Lilieholm says. “It took the students to tell us it was all one system and it should all be looked at as a cohesive project.”

Lilieholm cites the Bangor Waterfront as an example of positive development along the river. Starting in 2008, the area was revitalized — with more than $200 million in public/private investment — from an old railroad site into picnic areas, walking paths and a successful concert venue that has brought an estimated $47.5 million to the area economy during its first four seasons, according to a study by UMaine economist Todd Gabe.

“Our greatest asset is that river. We have something that so few states have. It should be an asset and not a liability. How do you wrap all of our strengths into one broader effort? Creating that vision helps everyone do whatever it is that they want to do,” Lilieholm says. “Protecting quality of place, keeping working farms and working forests, attracting new businesses and residents. We’ve got a thousand mules and we’re all pulling in the same direction — that is, we’re all striving to protect our quality of life and promote economic development. The problem is that despite all these efforts, we’re not hooked up and pulling together in a recognizable way.”

Lilieholm says in today’s economy, the greatest competition is for people — attracting new residents, highly trained workers and their families. And this is where Maine’s high quality of life is a key strength. It is the state’s greatest economic asset.

Because of that, Lilieholm advocates for academic institutions as conservation catalysts, and has been involved with Academics for Land Protection in New England (ALPiNE), an emerging network that seeks to explore and expand the role that New England academic institutions play in conserving the natural heritage of the region.

Lilieholm says colleges and universities can make a difference in protecting land and quality of place through student research, community engagement, service-learning opportunities and citizen science. He hopes large landscape modeling can be used to create and catalyze regional conservation partnerships.

“It’s a way for all of us to work together to try to build these broader scenarios that are going to have more impact,” Lilieholm says of ALPiNE.

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Spring/Summer 2015


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