Geologist Joe Kelley's research and passion are dedicated to
protecting the Maine coast
Joe Kelley can't sit still. In the Bryand Global Sciences Center on The University of Maine campus, he
fairly leaps in and out of his chair, juggling rolled-up seafloor charts
in a chaotic office that resembles a wallpaper store hit by a tornado.
With an athlete's restless body language and a ready smile that shows
all his teeth, Kelley radiates energy. And it's clear on this spring day
in Orono that the marine geologist itches to be outside, to be walking
the beaches and bluffs of his native Maine, to be on or under the
familiar waters of the Gulf of Maine or Cobscook Bay.
For 20 years, Kelley has pugnaciously guarded the well-being of the
state's natural coastal resources. He was lead author of the 1989
"bible" of Maine coastal management, Living with the Coast of Maine, and
was a guiding force behind the most environmentally protective coastal
management regulations in the nation. The Maine Audubon Society has
called him "Maine's coastal conscience."
"When I came back to Maine in 1982 after being gone for a decade, I saw
the same fights developing that I had seen in New Jersey and Louisiana
over how close people could build to the water," says Kelley, a
professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and School of Marine
Sciences. "I didn't want Maine to make the same mistakes."
His book is now 13 years old, and many battles — if not the war — have
been won. The inexorable rise of sea level at a rate of more than one
foot per century is now accepted by the most hard-headed of his
opponents. And there have been enough highly visible failures of
engineered "solutions" to shoreline erosion that even schoolchildren
know it's a devil's bargain to tinker with the powerful natural cycles
of beach migration.
But Kelley hasn't relaxed his vigilance. In fact, he left his long-time
job as the state's marine geologist at the Maine Geological Survey in
1999 to join the faculty at UMaine, in part because the former position
prohibited discussions with state legislators on coastal management
issues dear to his heart.
"I'm not against development. I'm against construction that impinges on
the public's right to have access to a coastal area," Kelley says. "But
those rights are terminated by homeowners who prevent access by putting
up fences and walls, and by practices like building seawalls or groins
that, in the end, eliminate the area altogether."
Kelley fondly recalls "extensive areas of pristine, accessible shore"
back in the '50s and '60s when he was growing up in Portland, the son of
first-generation immigrants from Galway, Ireland.
He earned a full scholarship to Boston University with every intention
of attending medical school. Then — "just fascinated" by a required
geology course and its fieldtrips — Kelley changed majors and went on to
Lehigh University in Pennsylvania for a Ph.D. At Lehigh, Kelley met his
future wife, Alice, a geologist who is now a UMaine instructor and a
Ph.D. candidate in Quaternary studies.
It was at Cape May in southern New Jersey that Kelley saw the "worst
sorts of coastal construction." From the book: "I found a black humor in
the plight of residents who lost poorly sited, but fabulously expensive
properties to the changing shoreline. I could not comprehend the
mentality or the motives of developers who constructed high-rise
buildings so near to the margin of the sea."
This "New Jerseyization" of the shoreline was evident on a larger scale
in coastal Louisiana when Kelley accepted a teaching job at the
University of New Orleans in 1979. Appalled by costly and destructive
efforts to stabilize a shoreline ravaged by reckless development in the
face of the rising sea, he and Alice wrote Living with the Louisiana
In 1982, Kelley was hired by the Maine Geological Survey and returned to
the state he loved as a self-described "beach-hugger" and Audubon
Society stalwart. His glimpse of the future down South was motivation
enough to lead the charge for sane management of the Maine coast before
it was too late.
The tourist-brochure image of Maine as an unchanging, unyielding bedrock
sanctuary from the raging sea is a reassuring one, but geologist Kelley
knows better. In the past 20,000 years, mile-thick glacial ice covered
the state and depressed the Earth's crust with its weight. The coast and
major river valleys were flooded far inland as the glaciers melted.
Today, sea level is again on the rise, and the 3,500-mile Maine "tidal
shoreline" is responding unevenly. Down East is drowning rapidly because
of land subsidence possibly related to earthquakes, he says. The central
coast is fairly stable, while southern areas are sinking more slowly
than the northern coast.
With the rising sea and natural erosion caused by storms and tides, the
bottom line is that anyone who builds on the "soft coast" — Maine's
beaches and shoreline bluffs of unstable "Ice Age mud," as opposed to
classic granite promontories — is playing "real estate roulette," Kelley
His philosophy is reflected in a set of simple truths: The beach is a
natural system in dynamic equilibrium; erosion isn't a problem until a
structure is built on the shore; intervening to protect a beach upsets
the balance and destroys what was to be saved.
"Let the lighthouse, beach cottage, motel, or hot dog stand fall when
its time comes," he writes with typical wit and candor.
That logic informs Maine's Sand Dune Law governing coastal development
that Kelley helped to strengthen and expand in the late 1980s into a
model for other states. A strong law was critical in Maine because of
the state's extensive (97 percent) private ownership of the coast, he
says. Among its progressive provisions: if more than half of a shoreline
structure such as a seawall is destroyed in a storm, it cannot be
Not everyone agrees with Kelley's logic. He says the bitter, prolonged
fight over the dredging of Wells Harbor was "the worst" of his battles,
not the least because of head-butting with the U.S. Army Corps of
Historically, the harbor was a shallow tidal inlet of the Webhannet
River between Wells and Drakes Island beaches, accessible only at high
tide. In the 1960s, when recreational boaters wanted to deepen Wells
Harbor, the Corps of Engineers bracketed the inlet with jetties and
dredged a channel, dumping the sand on an adjacent salt marsh.
But the harbor repeatedly filled in and the beaches began disappearing,
thanks to complex sand migration patterns disrupted by the jetties.
Further dredging was halted under the modern regulations. An
environmentally acceptable compromise was recently implemented.
Not surprisingly, Kelley was front and center during the debate and made
few friends in Wells. "I'm a pretty aggressive person," he says. "I
don't take it personally. I can laugh and tell a joke in the middle of
an argument, and it just drives them crazy."
Kelley's charm and energy are assets in appearances before the state
legislature, citizen groups and media. The father of three is a licensed
pilot and a certified diver, runs 5-6 miles a day and leads an annual
cross-country skiing trek with his students across Baxter State Park. He
writes fiction, cooks with a Cajun accent and wears green on St.
But he's first and foremost a researcher, and his arguments about
responsible coastal development demand attention. Kelley travels widely
on research projects, to Alaska, Ireland, Portugal, China, the West
Kelley applies solid science to what was almost medieval prognostication
just decades ago. He uses a full technological arsenal:
ground-penetrating and side-scan sonar, remote- controlled submarines,
satellite and airplane imagery, robot buoys recording every twitch of
He's been instrumental in developing a series of maps classifying
Maine's coast according to risk for erosion or landslides. Another
effort mapped seafloor topography.
Much of his local funding comes from the Maine Sea Grant Program,
including support for a project he hopes is a prototype for the future.
In collaboration with UMaine colleague Dan Belknap and Steve Dickson of
the Maine Geological Survey, Kelley recruited a volunteer force of 70
"stakeholders" — property owners, teachers, scientists,
environmentalists — to record regular beach profiles at 10 locations in
southern Maine. The goal is to develop a database of sand migration
patterns correlated with weather and ocean activity.
"Awareness levels have improved tremendously since 1982," he says. "But
continuing education is the key.
"I want my kids to have the same opportunity to grow up along a
beautiful shoreline that I had, but I'm no longer so naive to believe
that will simply happen without effort."
And will Joe Kelley be there when the Sand Dune Law comes up for review
in public hearings this summer? "Oh yeah, I'll testify," he says with a
by Luther Young
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.