Managing for Beauty

Lake planning and management is not just making technical measurements and using some scientific understanding to set values that those measurements should match. That was one view of lake plans and, in its simplest form, all that was required was to measure total phosphorus in the water and make a plan to hold that measurement below a particular value. The reasoning was that lakes became unacceptable when they became over-fertilized (eutrophied) and thus overgrown with algae and other aquatic plants. With too much nutrient input, the easiest nutrient to control was phosphorus. It was the easiest because excess phosphorus usually comes from human activity, particularly septic waste. So the amount of development that a lake could tolerate (lake capacity) was measured by its total phosphorus and lake plans were seen as very mechanical plans to reduce phosphorus input. It was so simple that there was talk of “templates” that would let one lake plan be copied to many other lakes. And there was the belief that a lake plan was an ordinary document with some maps; it could be made and that was the end. A lake plan was not seen as an ongoing, ‘living’ document with many parts and the need for continued planning, additions and changes.


A different view is that a lake management plan should consider many variables and plan to manage that complex of variables. Not just one or a few and with updating to match changes over time. This view recognizes that the satisfaction of the lake’s users is one of the variables to be considered along with natural processes such as normal amounts of nutrients in the water. Fundamentally the objective of lake management plans includes maintaining the lake’s normal processes but it also can include more complex variables such as beauty – one of the elements of user satisfaction.


Everyone has their own idea of beauty. So managing for beauty is not simple. But it also is not to be avoided when thinking about lake management planning. The aesthetic value of a sunset against a skyline treed with pines is not easy to measure technically. Similarly, it is technically difficult to measure the difference in the beauty of a lakeside cliff with and without cottages hung on the edge of that cliff. How do we even articulate the range of views of the beauty of undeveloped granite? How do we measure the attractiveness of a lakeshore crowded to the edge with buildings compared to a shore dominated by natural vegetation hiding the buildings.


Too much artificial light or noise destroys the beauty for many. Too much aquatic vegetation may not appeal to some but to others, clear blue water is an unmistakable sign of a starving ecological system and is not beautiful. A little “scum” on the water bulging with trapped bubbles ceases to be “scum” when you recognize that those bubbles are the oxygen produced by photosynthesis that maintains the liveable composition of our atmosphere. Bubbles from a beautiful natural process. A football-sized colony of bryozoans on a stick along the shore is repulsive, even fearsome, to those who don’t know what it is. But when they do know about it and they know that it indicates a well-functioning aquatic system, it is another form of beauty.


Yes, beauty does have a place in lake management planning. Beauty is a reflection of many variables in the eyes of different people. If we value beauty and the ability to see the stars and planets clearly, and other variables such as noise are important to us, then lake management plans must consider a wide range of variables.


One-size-fits-all lake plans won’t do. Both lakes and their people are too variable. And admitting that, it also is clear that lake planning is an ongoing process and lake plans need to be living documents. Additional chapters and revisions will be needed as time goes on. People’s desires change, the lake changes, the climate changes, capability to manage variables changes, and people’s understanding increases. Their view of what is beautiful will change. Lake stewardship needs to be a process, not a fixed ‘plan’, with many paths of feedback and held together by cooperative sharing.


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