Friday was not the last day on the job Everett “Brownie” Carson expected.
by Bill Nemitz
Maine Sunday Telegram column
When he decided back in May it was time to step down as executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Carson thought his departure would be a celebration of all the organization has achieved during his 27-year tenure.
Instead, much to his dismay, Carson’s retirement last week coincides with the first round in the fight of the Maine environmental community’s life.
“It is absolutely not the exit I anticipated,” said Carson as he sat in the NRCM’s library, the windows of which look out on the Blaine House. “Never in my calculations did I envision the election of a governor who would go after essentially all that the NRCM and I personally have worked for for a full generation.”
Supporters of Gov. Paul LePage see “Phase 1 of the Governor’s Regulatory Reform Proposals” — a seven-page document released last week that focuses almost exclusively on Maine’s environmental laws and regulations — as a crucial first step in making Maine’s state government more business-friendly.
Carson — who just over a week ago listened to LePage tell 500 or so environmentalists, “I will never challenge an environmental law based in science” — takes a somewhat different view.
“This is not regulatory reform or anything akin to regulatory reform,” he said, motioning toward the LePage administration’s six pages of scattershot proposals aimed squarely at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Regulation Commission. “This is a wholesale frontal assault on the very fabric of Maine’s environmental safeguards and laws.”
And Carson, for one, thinks the more Mainers of every age, occupation and political stripe hear what’s in the LePage administration’s laundry list of “reforms,” the less they’ll stand for it.
A few examples:
LePage wants to require that 30 percent of the unorganized territory now under LURC jurisdiction be zoned for development.
Counters Carson: “That’s 3 million acres. That’s 10 Los Angeleses. This is essentially doing away with LURC without doing away with LURC.”
LePage wants to abolish the 10-member citizen Board of Environmental Protection, replacing it with an “administrative law judge system” to handle appeals of DEP permitting decisions and enforcement actions.
Counters Carson: “To attack the BEP and attempt to abolish it, I think, goes right to the heart of whether special interests are going to run the environmental stewardship program in this state or whether we’re going to have strong citizen involvement and leadership.”
LePage wants to “conform Maine statutory and regulatory standards to federally required standards.”
Counters Carson: “There’s a reason Maine has tougher standards than the federal minimums. The people of Maine don’t want environmental laws weakened or gutted so unscrupulous polluting industries and developers can take advantage of a landscape and resources that are Maine’s calling card.”
He could go on all day. But as Carson stares in disbelief at LePage’s so-called “reforms” — from rollbacks of consumer-product safety and recycling statutes aimed at keeping dangerous chemicals out of our bodies and our landfills, to relaxation of protections for vernal pools and wildlife habitats, to elimination of controls on sulphur emissions from fuel oil — he can’t help but wonder how carefully LePage and Company actually pondered the myriad proposals before they bundled them up and stamped them “regulatory reform.”
“It’s everything including the kitchen sink,” said Carson. And that here-there-and-everywhere feel to the list “may be an indication that every lawyer and every developer and every polluter that’s ever run into a problem is now trying to eliminate the law or standard that created that problem so they now can do anything they want.”
LePage loyalists, of course, will consider Carson’s complaints proof positive that the new governor is in fact taking on the very “special interests” that, in LePage Land, drove Maine last fall to the bottom of Forbes magazine’s business-climate rankings.
But Carson argues that by targeting something so traditionally sacred as Maine’s environment, the governor — along with whoever else’s fingerprints might be on the “Phase 1” wish list — is walking into a political buzz saw.
“I think this is an overreach. I really do,” he said. “Even in the poorer counties, where people are struggling in Maine, we really value our environment. That’s an ethic that runs really deep and has for a long, long time.”
So, as he steps down from more than a quarter-century advocating for that environment, does Carson care to handicap this looming fight?
Sure he does.
He foresees powerful pushback against LePage from “hunters, anglers, the tourism industry” and other deep-rooted Mainers who remember all too well what this state looked like back when blatant exploitation of the state’s precious natural resources trumped their careful protection.
He expects many in the business community who actually came here for Maine’s quality of life to “go in, take Paul LePage gently but firmly by his lapels, look him eyeball-to-eyeball and say, ‘Don’t make the mistake of driving people like me away.'”
He’s confident the NRCM, under the “very able” leadership of new Executive Director Lisa Pohlmann, will “lead this fight and have lots of company.”
And, he warns, if all else fails and the Republican-controlled Legislature “goes wholesale down the road toward approving all of this stuff, there will be a voter revolt in 2012.”
And what about him? Does the one-time Marine who served in Vietnam truly think he can walk away from this looming battle? Can he take the passion that carried him right up through last week and, starting Monday, just put it on a shelf?
“My wife says, ‘He’ll be doing the same thing he’s been doing for the last 20 years — only he won’t be paid for it. ”
And what does Brownie Carson say?
“If the governor really wants a fight, I’ll be like one of the soldiers in Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine,” he replied. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Nor, we can only hope, is the Maine he fought so nobly to protect.