A voice FOR the wilderness
BRUNSWICK – Brownie Carson knows an environmental law can be repealed. He knows that a restored landscape can be contaminated again. But when a hydroelectric dam falls, there isn’t anyone who’s going to build it back up again.
This is what Carson was thinking on July 1, 1999, the day he watched a backhoe tear through the Edwards Dam and saw the Kennebec River flow unimpeded through Maine’s capital for the first time in 162 years. And when he paddled down the river the next day and saw a sign, facing downstream, with the hand-painted words “Welcome back, fish,” he knew they would come.
This spring, 2 million alewives reached Lockwood Dam upstream of where the Edwards Dam stood, and seals were seen in the Kennebec as far upriver as Waterville.
“Talk about the rebirth of a river,” he said.
Carson and the group he directs, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, worked for 10 years with a broad coalition to bring about the dam’s removal, one of many victories he’s enjoyed during his two decades heading up the environmental organization.
These include defeating the Big A Dam proposal in 1986 on the west branch of the Penobscot, pushing for passage of Maine’s recycling law, suing polluting corporations to reduce water discharges, urging passage of a bond for land conservation and fighting turnpike widenings, to name just a few.
Today, at its annual meeting in Portland, the coalition will celebrate 20 years of his leadership.
Carson’s admirers gauge his accomplishments in many ways: by the ever-lengthening list of policy triumphs he’s helped to bring about, by the way he’s expanded the size and clout of the council, by the ties he’s forged throughout the environmental community and how he’s taken the organization from one with a $250,000 budget to one with 8,000 members and an annual budget of more than $2 million.
In addition to marking Carson’s achievements by what he has changed about Maine, some also measure him by what he’s held constant, his core belief that everyone must take responsibility for protecting Maine’s air and water and forests.
“He believes that we have a responsibility to ourselves and our grandchildren and the world around us,” said Daniel Amory, who served on the council’s board for eight years. “He’s full of energy and full of life. This is not somebody who’s a wonk in a think tank.”
Brownie – Everett Brown Carson – is easy to engage in a discussion about Maine’s environment. He’s sharp-tongued but civil. He talks a lot but listens closely. He communicates as much with his words as he does with his deep-set, blue eyes and his long, strawberry blond and white eyebrows, which dance on his forehead to express frustration, amusement or gravity.
The 56-year-old Brunswick resident, husband, and father of two grew up with his two older brothers in the small town of Lexington, Va. His was a family of avid outdoorsmen – hiking, canoeing, camping, sailing.
“We were given by our parents both a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility,” Carson said. “I think that means you take care of the things that are important to you. Other than my family, I think the natural world’s the most important thing to me.”
His ties to Maine came from his father, who had vacationed at Flying Moose Lodge in East Orland. The eldest Carson brought his three boys to Maine for camping and canoeing excursions, and for two summers, the family sailed off the Maine coast.
When it came time for Brownie Carson to head off to college, he had already decided that there was no place he’d rather be than Maine. But even before that, a six-week tour of the American West in 1963 cemented Brownie’s love for the world’s wilder places. The trip was a college graduation gift to Brownie’s older brother Bob, six year’s his senior.
The two of them drove from national park to national park in a Ford Falcon, at a time before national parks ever experienced capacity crowds and traffic jams and before drinking out of a stream was a health hazard. The brothers climbed mountain after mountain – Rainier, Hood, Whitney, the Canadian Rockies – visited the Las Vegas strip and sipped root beer floats at whatever A&W they happened to pass.
For the 15-year-old Brownie, the trip opened his eyes to the sweeping beauty of the outdoors. It wasn’t until later, however, that he put his love of the natural world together with his bent for activism.
In the meantime, Brownie went off to Bowdoin College.
“But I wasn’t studying very hard. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do,” he said.
Though his studies weren’t making an impression at the time, the state of the Androscoggin River did.
“It was so utterly covered in foam that on warm days, you didn’t want to get near it,” he said.
Carson left college in the spring of his sophomore year.
After a brief stint working at a carpet mill in Virginia, he volunteered for the U.S. Marines Corp. He spent five months in Vietnam as an infantry platoon commander, but came back to the states after a bullet shattered his elbow.
His time with the armed forces, however brief, was nevertheless the impetus for a new direction in life. As the country began learning about Cambodia and political activists at home were beginning to clash violently with police, Carson turned to the anti-war movement. He spoke out against it and joined Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry in giving the government back war medals and ribbons. This was also the time of awakening for the environmental movement, which held the first Earth Day celebration in 1970.
Carson graduated from Bowdoin College in 1972 with plans to start a political career. He ran in the 1972 primaries for Maine’s 1st District congressional seat. He lost.
He went to law school and then worked for six years at Pine Tree Legal Assistance before signing on as a lobbyist with the Natural Resources Council of Maine. A year later, in 1984, Carson took over as director of the coalition.
Though his political career was cut short, politics never really left the forefront of Carson’s mind. On a recent morning, he scanned passing cars for political bumper stickers to see how people were planning to vote. Politics, he said, has become a fundamental part of environmental protection.
“Whenever important environmental decisions are being made, you have the substance of the issues, which is making sure that elected officials understand what’s at stake, and then you have the politics,” he said.
In today’s political landscape, there are many more lobbyists who would seek to undo environmental legislation than there are those who would want to strengthen it, he said. Part of the coalition’s job, according to Carson, is getting citizens to join together to become a louder voice than the industry lobbyists and to cut through the rhetoric that so often pits jobs against the environment.
In 2001, the council mobilized hundreds of citizens to lobby Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection to impose new pollution controls on Wyman Station, the oil-fired power plant in Yarmouth that Carson describes as the “biggest, oldest, dirtiest power plant in the state of Maine.”
As Carson describes it, the council fought the company’s contention that installing nitrogen oxide controls would be too expensive and would force layoffs. Carson’s group brought in its own experts, who testified that the controls would be significantly less expensive than the company claimed. In the end, the board sided with the council.
“We are absolutely determined to hold their feet to the fire,” Carson said.
Though he continues to insist industry be held accountable for its actions, his approach has changed a bit over the years.
“Twenty years ago, I very much wanted the whole enchilada,” he said. “I think I’m a little bit more pragmatic and slightly, but not a whole lot, more tempered in my approach.”
People who know him say that this is one of the reasons he’s so successful.
“He realizes you can’t be NIMBY 100 percent of the time,” said his brother Bob. “He’s learned more and more how the system works. But if he thinks something is real important, he’ll raise the money and do it.”
That list of “real important” things is long.
The council is currently working to promote alternative energy sources, get cleaner cars on the road, reduce mercury pollution from power plants, in addition to a host of other initiatives that Carson is quick to point out could not be accomplished without the work of his staff, which has grown from eight to 27 in the last 20 years.
“The Natural Resources Council has such a place and such a history in Maine,” Carson said. “There has rarely been a significant environmental debate that the council has not been involved in.”
Under his watch, Carson has no plans for that to change.