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Beach conference to focus on erosion of sand, tourism

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Beach conference to focus on erosion of sand, tourism

SOUTH PORTLAND — With the first warm, sunny days in about a month, beaches were undoubtedly on many people's mind last weekend.

This Friday, beach enthusiasts will gather at Southern Maine Community College's dining hall to discuss the role Maine's beaches play in driving the summer economy and, more importantly, what's at stake if coastal storms intensify and sea levels rise.

But not all of the speakers at the 2009 Maine Beaches Conference will be sounding the climate change alarm. A professor from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has questioned the urgency of the climate change debate and the role humans play in it, will also be on the program. 

Coordinator Catherine Schmitt said the July 10 conference is a chance for anyone who loves beaches to get up-to-date information about the current state of beaches, from surfers to entrepreneurs to the average beach-goer. 

This year, economists will attempt to quantify the value of Maine's beaches, from their impact on home values to attracting tourists. 

"There are only 35 miles of sandy beaches in Maine, but they are a huge draw," Schmitt said. "The state has been struggling with trying to quantify the value of Maine's sandy beaches."

State Economist Michale LeVert, who will be one of more than 20 speakers at the biennial conference, said sandy beaches play a major role the state's $10 billion tourist industry in the form of travel, lodging, food and retail. 

"Healthy beaches, just like sustainable forests, working waterfronts, and vibrant downtowns, are a part of our quality of place, which is central to the Maine economy," LeVert said. 

This year's conference will look at rising sea levels from two different perspectives, while examining the role that governmental policy plays in preserving beaches and associated ecosystems, like sand dunes and water quality. 

Charles Colgan, an economist at the University of Southern Maine, will discuss his report on how rising sea levels and intensifying coastal storms are not only eroding the state's sandy shoreline, but also the economy. Colgan's analysis, focusing on beaches in York County, was recently published in the Maine Policy Review.

Also, Beth Nagusky, of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, will discuss ecologic impacts and public policy's role. 

Meanwhile, MIT professor Richard Lindzen will argue that satellite data fails to confirm the model predictions of climate sensitivity, suggesting rising sea levels are not as serious as some people suggest.

Lindzen is known for questioning the alarm with which some scientists discuss climate change and the extent to which it is caused by humans. He has argued that climate change and rising sea levels have been common since the last glaciation.

Schmitt said volunteer groups, like Healthy Maine Beaches and the State of Maine Beaches Profiling Project, will release updated reports.

"This is designed to be an open discussion of Maine's beaches," Schmitt said. 

Those planning to attend the conference must register online or contact Kristen Grant at 646-1555 ext. 115.

The conference is sponsored by SMCC, Maine Coastal Program, Maine Sea Grant and University of Maine Cooperative Extension, SOS Maine, Maine Geological Survey, Surfrider Northern New England Chapter, and Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net