Natural Resources Council of Maine celebrates its half century of advocacy
by Chris Cousins
AUGUSTA — In 50 years of existence, the Natural Resources Council of Maine has compiled a long list of achievements — ranging from the removal of dams to the successful push for a bottle bill in Maine.
The council, which employs 24 people, focuses on environmental advocacy through legal action, building grassroots coalitions of businesses and environmentalists and lobbying the Legislature and Congress.
“The tool that we use varies on what we think we can get done,” said Brunswick resident Everett “Brownie” Carson, who has been the council’s executive director for the past 25 years. “Sometimes we do the leading work and sometimes we don’t. I don’t think there are any bragging rights in environmental advocacy. We all do what we think is right.”
The council is in the midst of a schedule of 50 events to celebrate each year of its existence. Last week, at a party hosted by the council at its Augusta headquarters, one of the guests of honor was Bill Townsend, whose involvement with the organization stretches back to the first days of its existence. Townsend served as the organization’s director for more than two decades.
“Think of what Maine would have looked like if it weren’t for the Natural Resources Council of Maine,” Townsend told the gathering.
The NRCM has fought successfully against existing and proposed dams in several rivers; opposed development ventures it deemed harmful to the environment; and waged a battle against toxics, including pesticides and pollution.
It has also supported initiatives to create the Land for Maine’s Future program, to ban billboards in Maine and, more recently, to increase electronics recycling and reduce the amount of mercury in the state’s waste stream.
Patrick McGowan, commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, has worked with the NRCM for many years.
“When they were founded, it was at about that time when the advocacy for clean water in Maine started,” said McGowan. “The rivers in Maine were basically cesspools for human and industrial waste. I haven’t always agreed with them … but if you take a look at the things they’ve advocated for and their activism, it’s made Maine a pretty good place to be.”
The group’s efforts over the years created critics among the NRCM’s adversaries and at times, its partners. Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, said the farmers she represents share most of NRCM’s goals, but at times have not liked the council’s process toward achieving them.
“While in concept we find ourselves on the same lines, we often find ourselves at loggerheads with what NRCM has done,” said Bickford. “We have a strange relationship.”
Jon Olson, executive secretary for the Maine Farm Bureau Association, hailed the council for its efforts in promoting bottle recycling in Maine, current-use taxation of land and promoting the preservation of open space. But at times, the council’s focus on regulation has crossed a line many farmers didn’t want to cross.
“I think sometimes the NRCM’s approach is more about regulation and that’s where we’ve had some problems,” said Olson.
Ed Friedman, president of Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, which focuses on water quality and preserving populations of fish, eels and other species native to the bay and the six rivers that form it, said the council has had a “tremendous positive influence,” but in some areas hasn’t gone far enough.
“A lot of smaller environmental groups in Maine would probably characterize them as being missing in action on some more cutting-edge, politically out-front issues,” said Friedman. “There are a lot of us who are less willing to compromise than the NRCM is.”
Jonathan Carter, director of the Forest Ecology Network, is a supporter of the council, but said it has fallen short on its advocacy for forests. He also criticized the council for too much of “playing the insider game,” meaning they engage too much in the political process.
“They’re very good at it,” said Carter. “They have a big bureaucracy to support so they have to raise a lot of money. Over time you have to start listening to your donors. I’d be saying the same thing about any mainstream organization.”
Carson said more than 60 percent of the council’s budget is supported by members, with the balance coming from foundations and businesses, including L.L. Bean.
“Decisions at this organization are absolutely not for sale,” said Carson, who remembers the days when the Kennebec River was so polluted that migratory fish couldn’t swim upriver to spawning grounds because of a lack of oxygen.
“The renewed health of the Kennebec, in a real sense, is a metaphor for how far we’ve come in the last 40 or 50 years,” he said. “At the same time, we have a lot more work to do.”