by George Smith
Maine’s environment is our economy. We can have pickerel and payrolls. These tired — but true — slogans have defined much of our political rhetoric for decades. Perhaps it’s time to change the discussion.
This was my thought as I sat in on a “conversation about the environment” hosted by gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler last week. Staff and board members from the state’s leading environmental organizations were invited to share with Cutler their “thoughts on a range of issues that impact Maine’s natural environment and our wild and scenic places.” I was among the 13 who issued the invitation on his behalf.
Cutler has extensive national and international experience in environmental issues, starting way back with U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie, so I doubted he’d learn much. As I listened intently to the issues and concerns of the environmental leaders around the table, along with Cutler’s responses, however, it occurred to me that Mainers need a new way to talk about these critical issues, and our political and environmental leaders have to figure out how to make complicated issues such as climate change personal to each and every one of us.
Take climate change, for example. The questions are: Is it real, and how and when will it affect me?
I’d bust right through the denials that climate change are real, and recognize that the warming climate already is affecting us — severely — and threatening what makes Maine special.
I hunted for 45 years in Maine without ever seeing a deer tick. Then I began hearing that they were in southernmost sections of our state, moving north with the warmer weather, that many of the dogs in the southern coastal region had Lyme disease, and that a handful of residents also had caught this dreadful disease.
Then it became personal, as the ticks arrived in central Maine. I first encountered them during the spring turkey season. Since then, I have been treated with antibiotics four times because of ticks embedded in my skin. And I have removed hundreds from my body over the last decade.
A few years ago, I was seated in the audience at a legislative hearing when I felt a tick crawling up my neck. Quietly and unobtrusively, I grabbed the tick, escorted it to the men’s room, squashed it and washed it down the sink drain.
When I got back to my seat, a friend behind me asked, “What was that?”
“A deer tick,” I responded. “I killed and flushed it.”
“You should have put it on someone in the room you don’t like,” he chuckled. I laughed, but honestly, Lyme disease is no laughing matter.
In my outdoor world, climate change could not be more threatening. Imagine that you are a guide or sporting camp owner in western and northern Maine. Having lost our deer herd, these people now depend on bears, moose, brook trout and snowmobiling for their livelihoods. All are threatened by the warmer climate.
Brook trout are completely dependent on cold water. And here’s another change that has occurred in my lifetime. As a kid, I caught brookies all over Winthrop, but very few bass. Today, twice as many bass — a warm water non-native species — are caught in Maine than brook trout. Our native and wild brook trout — 97 percent of what remains of them in the United States — are mostly in the North Woods.
Moose are disappearing all over the northern states, and the culprit seems to be the warming climate, which has changed habitats and covered these big animals with life-draining ticks. Research in New Hampshire provides devastating evidence that these ticks kill lots of moose cows and calves.
We’re fortunate that, unlike our neighboring New England states, we still get a lot of snow and have a thriving snowmobile industry. But we ought to be very concerned that the snow might turn to rain — permanently.
And I haven’t even mentioned green crabs, thriving in our warmer ocean waters, gobbling up our mussels and clams — or the disappearance of herring, which my grandmother packed in Lubec at a time when Maine had 75 sardine plants. Today: none.
We can’t seem to agree about how to get together to create a future that reacts to and minimizes the changes that will continue to come from a warming climate. We spend too much time fighting over issues like mining — a sign of our people’s desperate grasping of anything that could generate jobs — while the climate and our feeble economy burns all around us.
There’s no antibiotic that will cure us, if this continues.