The World Outside Our Door

January, 2005

by Terry Rayno

Steve Kahl, director of PSU’s new Center for the Environment. Photo by Alan MacRae.

Steve Kahl, director of PSU’s new Center for the Environment. Photo by Alan MacRae.

Sustainability is this year’s theme at Plymouth State University, focusing on renewable resources and sound environmental practices. So it’s appropriate that this is also the year when PSU opens the new Center for the Environment at the Boyd Science Center.

The idea arose several years ago when President Donald P. Wharton met with Will Abbott (then director of the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, now at the Mount Washington Observatory), and Mrs. Bertha Fauver. A longtime benefactor of both Plymouth State and lakes conservation organizations, Fauver felt the University should enhance collaborations with area conservation groups for the benefit of the whole region.

Over the next two and a half years, University officials and representatives from such conservation organizations as the Squam Lakes Association, the Newfound Lake Region Association and the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center met to plan the Center.

Provost Virginia Barry explains that the Center has three emphases. The first is applied research with a focus on lake and forest ecosystems, to be closely linked to a second emphasis: enhanced graduate education at PSU. The third emphasis is to engage the public through a variety of outreach functions such as symposia and classroom-scientist interactions.

To that end, the University hired Jeffrey “Steve” Kahl, founder and longtime director of the Sen. George J. Mitchell Center for Environmental and Watershed Research at the University of Maine. Kahl, who is known nationally for his research on acid rain and water quality in lakes and streams, assumed his new post this fall.

Over the past 22 years, his projects have funded more than 50 graduate students and countless undergraduates and helped establish many research partnerships. His research projects have received nearly $9 million in state and federal grants. One highly visible example is his long-term acid rain research on New England lakes that was featured in a 2002 Environmental Protection Agency report to Congress on the effectiveness of the federal Clean Air Act, later published in the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment.

The Center will work collaboratively with local, state and national agencies and organizations. The first steps, Kahl notes, should be to find out what the needs are. The Center can play an important role in helping the entire region-from selectmen and conservation commissions, to state water monitoring efforts, to providing research on the effects of air pollution on the White Mountain National Forest, for instance.

“I’m a strong believer in the worth of applied research because it provides more immediate impact for society and policy. Moreover, applied research projects aren’t just important on the scientific level, they have the ability to engage the entire campus,” says Kahl, who is interested in what he calls the intersection of science and public policy. “Scientific research can provide unbiased information that allows society to take actions that will bring about positive change. When that happens everyone wins. That shows we are making good decisions with public dollars that support our work.”

A Maine native who has lived all over the United States, Kahl received his B.A. degree in zoology (with a chemistry minor), his master’s degree in geological sciences and his Ph.D in watershed geochemistry from the University of Maine. He has been a high school chemistry teacher in Connecticut, a marine specialist for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, a geologist with Billiton Metals and Ores in Virginia and a geologist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

He was a founding member of the Tunk Mountain Watershed Study in 1982, one of the longest-running lake monitoring programs in the country. For the last 20 years he has been the director of the University of Maine Water Research Institute and predecessor units, renamed in honor of the former U.S. senator in 2000. In that time, he built the institute into a nationally recognized institution. In 2002, Kahl was co-leader of the EPA Congressional Assessment of the Clean Air Act.

Kahl suggests that environmental issues can be considered global (such as climate change), regional (like mercury in lakes, air pollution and acid rain) and local (storm-water runoff, lake pollution and invasive plants, for instance). Two of his recent research projects are still ongoing in Maine. One in Acadia National Park, known as PrimeNet, is attempting to determine if watershed characteristics such as soil type, vegetation and land-use history can be used as reliable indicators of mercury concentrations in fish. Another study examines whether water chemistry factors can be identified that are limiting the recovery of Atlantic salmon (presently on the endangered species list) in New England rivers. The study examines the effects of such things as road salt runoff and dam removal on the fishery.

Currently, the Center is located in Boyd Science Center, room 213, and is occupied by the new director and administrative assistant. Since fundraising and grant writing are important to the Center’s success, Kahl plans to hire an outreach and development coordinator: someone to run the conferences and programs, but with a science background to write grant proposals and serve as a resource on and off campus.

In the near future, Kahl sees the University developing a graduate program in environmental science. He envisions the Center having a staff of six to eight with its own research laboratory. The Center is actively looking for a field station site in the area. He notes that the Mitchell Center today has 14 employees and 30 graduate students, having grown from two employees and a handful of graduate students during his time at the University of Maine.

“My vision is to make Plymouth’s Center for the Environment a nationally respected institution that plays a vital role in the region. Our work can benefit the area towns, the state and the nation as well as local and national conservation organizations. If our research helps us to improve the environment, we are improving everyone’s life.”

Kahl foresees the Center directly benefiting the University as well. “Graduate education will expand the course offerings, offer higher level courses for undergraduates, bring mentors for our undergraduates, and provide faculty with graduate assistants for research and teaching. Even better, this visibility and mentoring will increase the number of science majors. It is extremely important for colleges and universities to improve the scientific literacy of the entire population. We have a great opportunity to do that with the new program,” Kahl says.

Kahl also looks forward to the opportunity to mentor young scientists. “By engaging graduate and undergraduate students in the Center’s work we are not only educating them, we are also connecting them with scientists and officials who are leaders in their fields. These are the people who will provide our students with jobs in the future.”

He feels it is an opportune time for the University. “This is an institution on the rise. In becoming a regional university, Plymouth State is undergoing an important change in focus. The Center gives us a chance to create something that will make a huge difference to so many people.”

Kahl and his wife and daughter have quickly become part of the local community. His wife, Mary Ann McGarry, is an adjunct professor in PSU’s chemical, earth, atmospheric and physical sciences (CEAPS) department.

Since arriving in Plymouth, Kahl has spent much of his time meeting with local and state officials and leaders of environmental organizations. Those efforts have already borne fruit, ranging from three funded grants to hosting the 2005 annual meeting of the New England Chapter of the North American Lakes Management Society in June 2005. A research-strategy workshop will be organized by the Center for the Squam Lake watershed in early 2005, as well.

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