by Jay Field
Conservationists, sportsmen and wetlands scientists gathered today in Augusta to speak out — again — against proposals before the Legislature. They complain the measures will undermine decades of progress by dirtying Maine’s waterways and polluting the wetlands that wading shorebirds and other waterfowl depend on to thrive. But Republicans say the laws regulating activity in and around these areas are overly restricitve and especially hurt developers. One type of habitat is at the center of all the conflict.
Vernal pools are shallow depressions. They’re often found in forested wetlands. And usually, they fill up with water, but only for part of the year.
Peepers and toads call them home. And sometimes, so do animals like spotted turtles, ribbon snakes and different types of inland waterfowl. Pools with endangered, threatened or rare species like these are called “significant vernal pools” and they’re at the center of a lot of conflict in Augusta.
Wetlands scientists say protective buffer zones surrounding the pools are keeping certain species from going extinct. Republicans say regulations are hurting developers.
“How many real siginificant vernal pools are in the state? I’m hearing conflicting information on that,” says Republican Rep. Jon McKane of Newcastle, who is co-sponsoring LD 156, one of several bills that would loosen restrictions on development near significant vernal pools.
Under the measure, a private landowner wouldn’t have to abide by restrictions on how close to a significant vernal pool he could build – provided the pool wasn’t on his property. Right now, Maine law prohibits development within 250 feet of significant vernal pools, unless the builder gets a permit from the state.
“I need to learn more about it,” McKane says. “And I think maybe the 250-foot setback in all directions, for vernal pools, might be a bit too stiff.”>/font>
Another law under consideration, LD 872, would shorten the protective, permit buffer around significant vernal pools to just 75 feet.
“So if we were to reduce the buffers to 75 feet, 150 feet, we would essentially wipe out pool breeding amphibians in the state,” said Aram Calhoun, a professor of wetland ecology at the University of Maine at Orono. “To date, since 2006, no permits have been denied because of a significant vernal pool. Zero permits. They are not the cause for lack of development in the state.”
If anything, says Calhoun, part of what attracts people to Maine is that the state still has a vibrant wildlife community. Calhoun says her research shows that if the state conserves vernal pools, it will also conserve wildlife. And Calhoun says she’s working with a number of Maine towns right now on ways of marrying conservation efforts with policies that promote development.