By Theo Stein
There’s been Sturm und Drang aplenty over the Land Use Regulation Commission’s decision not to approve a 90-megawatt wind- power project proposed for a roadless mountain tract near Sugarloaf Mountain.
That’s to be expected and, one could argue, even healthy. After all, these are grand issues at stake.
The project would have permanently changed the viewshed in one of the most popular recreational areas in western Maine. As the Brookings Institution report points out, our state’s most important asset is the “Maine brand,” a big part of which is the natural splendor of the North Woods.
But that vaunted Maine brand may be little more than a banana to the 800-pound gorilla that an overheated climate could become.
Supporters of the Redington wind farm argue that climate change is a far bigger threat to the sensitive subalpine habitat on Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountain than 30 turbines and a dozen miles of road.
Critics include many who support wind power but feel this one piece of Maine’s western mountain landscape is too ecologically distinct and special to revoke its protected status.
LURC hasn’t rendered a final decision on the project: Commissioners have asked staff to draft a new decision document that recommends denial. Until then, commissioners are somewhat constrained from explaining their thinking in public.
In the meantime, questions about the future of wind power in Maine abound.
The state’s official policy is to generate 10 percent of our energy from renewable resources by 2017.
That’s a lot of turbines. We need to get moving if we’re going to get there.
Wind turbines need to be planted where the wind blows. A map of Maine’s wind resource potential shows the best onshore sites are in western and northern Maine, where the planning and zoning authority is none other than LURC.
It’s too early to assume commissioners have some inherent bias against wind power. A better test will be their deliberations over a 120 megawatt project proposed for Kibby Mountain.
In fact, if this decision demonstrates that an agency that was once little more than a paper tiger is now taking its statutory obligation to protect the character of the 10.4 million-acre unorganized territories more seriously than before, well, that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.
Change is barreling down on Maine’s North Woods: The stalled Redington project is one example, and Plum Creek’s rezoning request for its half-million acre holdings around Moosehead Lake is another.
LURC has been underfunded for decades on purpose. The last thing the big paper companies wanted was an agency with teeth gnawing on the ankles of their operations.
Now the paper barons are kaput. Meanwhile, an understaffed LURC is tackling applications of unprecedented scale while simultaneously revising its Comprehensive Land Use Plan, the overarching blueprint for the unorganized territories.
When the plan was last revised in 1997, no one could have forseen the tremendous demand for wind power.
The land use plan sets out a number of criteria by which wind projects will be evaluated. But LURC has never had the resources to take its planning mission one step further and inventory potential wind-farm sites prospectively.
After the last energy crunch in the 1980s, the rush of hydropower proposals caused the state to inventory its rivers. Class A rivers were off limits. Class B rivers had restrictions. Class C rivers were available for development.
It wasn’t a perfect system. Not everybody liked it, to be sure. But it provided some clear ground rules on what could happen where.
Given what’s on LURC’s plate already, it wouldn’t be fair to expect LURC director Catherine Carroll to add this to the to-do list without more support from the Legislature.
Mainers are going to have to make choices about what we want for the North Woods. But the best decisions — about wind farms, subdivisions or conservation investments — aren’t likely to be made if we’re going to fight these things mountain by mountain and lake by lake.
Of course, some people don’t want the state to look at the big picture. A perfect example is the Department of Conservation’s mothballed “backcountry project,” which sought to identify the self-propelled community’s top recreational assets to better plan for their protection.
Instead of providing its own list of top assets, the motorized lobby mounted a campaign of disinformation and killed it.
We ought to say to them what we should say to Redington’s critics: We know what you don’t want. Now tell us what you do want.