By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff
Bangor Daily News news story
AUGUSTA, Maine — The war of words — and recently letters — between Gov. Paul LePage and the Natural Resources Council of Maine has been simmering for years but reached a boil lately with LePage trying to interfere in the organization’s donor pool and the group calling the governor’s environmental record the worst in Maine history.
“They intimidate. They will do and say anything,” LePage said of the Natural Resources Council of Maine during his speech at the Republican State Convention in April. “They lie through their teeth, and they scare Republicans in election years because they gang up on people.”
Earlier this month, LePage had his staff track down mailing addresses of the Natural Resources Council of Maine donors and send about 200 of them a scathing letter.
“NRCM is not interested in a balance,” LePage said in the letter. “It is an activist group that says ‘no’ to every opportunity to allow Mainers to prosper.”
Natural Resources Council of Maine Executive Director Lisa Pohlmann had similarly harsh words for the governor.
“The steps he’s taking to lash out at a nonprofit organization like NRCM, because we disagree with his misguided agenda, are unprecedented and must stop,” Pohlmann said during a news conference at the State House earlier this month. “Gov. LePage is the most anti-environment governor in Maine history. … This tactic harkens back to something that Joseph McCarthy would have done in the 1950s, not a governor of the state of Maine in 2016.”
That summarizes the latest salvos, but what started the war? Here are a few battle lines.
The mining bill
A failed legislative attempt to revise rules for large-scale mining in Maine is Exhibit A in LePage’s criticism of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and vice versa. The Legislature, the governor and environmental groups have been fighting over mining since 2012, when LePage and the Republican-controlled Legislature approved changes to the state’s mining guidelines. The law came after a proposal to mine Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, though the rules would have applied to all of Maine.
It was in the Department of Environmental Protection’s rulemaking process that the bill ran into trouble and that’s where it’s stayed ever since. The Legislature has rejected the rules multiple times, including in the waning hours of the legislative session in June 2015.
While it was mostly legislative Democrats who have voted against the rules time and time again, the Natural Resources Council of Maine was at the front edge of the opposition with a long list of criticisms of the bill, along with the Appalachian Mountain Club, Maine Audubon, Maine Conservation Voters, The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited. Their complaints were about inadequate cleanup requirements at mines and financial guarantees from miners.
LePage says regularly, including during many of his town hall meetings, that voting against the mining bill is voting against jobs. He casts the Natural Resources Council of Maine and others who have demanded strict mining rules as elitist southern Maine organizations that don’t care about economic development in other areas of Maine.
“People in the southern part of Maine will not allow people in northern Maine to earn a good living,” he said during a town hall meeting in Lewiston. “I know it sounds hard and cruel, but it’s a fact.”
The Natural Resources Council of Maine says a mine at Bald Mountain would create 75-130 jobs — not enough, in the organization’s opinion, to justify the environmental cost — and only for the estimated 10-year life of the mine.
“Then there would be cleanup jobs for the mess created,” Pete Didisheim, the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s advocacy director, wrote.
Land for Maine’s Future
In recent years, this has been the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s chief beef with the governor. The organization was one of the original supporters of the Land for Maine’s Future program, when it was created in 1987. Since then, the program that helps fund land preservation efforts has put more than 570,000 acres in conservation.
LePage would like to dismantle the program. He came close to doing so by refusing to release $11.5 million in voter-approved conservation bond money for 10 months and by not allowing cabinet members to attend Land for Maine’s Future meetings, preventing a quorum.
LePage withheld the bonds because of opposition to his proposal to increase timber harvesting on public lands to pay for an energy efficiency program, which the Natural Resources Council of Maine also staunchly opposed.
LePage reversed his position and released the bonds in December 2015 amid mounting public pressure, though he still continues to criticize the program in public. Like with the mining bill, he frames his argument in terms of rich versus poor, suggesting that prosperous people benefit from conserved land disproportionately to the cost to property taxpayers after land is taken off their tax rolls.
“That’s gouging the taxpayers,” he said during a town hall meeting in Portland. “I won’t do it. It’s corrupt.”
Other issues in the crossfire
Solar energy. The Natural Resources Council of Maine was a lead proponent of a long-debated bill to rewrite the state’s solar energy strategy, which passed earlier this year but was later vetoed by LePage because of his concerns that it would elevate electricity costs in Maine. The bill died in April when the House of Representatives voted to sustain the veto.
Hydropower. Some of the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s most trumpeted achievements involve its work to remove dams in Maine, including Augusta’s Edwards Dam in 1999 and the Fort Halifax dam in 2007, making way for river runs of native fish species. The group also announced just a few days ago that it had completed its multi-year Penobscot River Restoration Project.
LePage has long argued that hydropower could be a significant part of the answer to reducing Maine’s electricity rates. In May 2015, LePage followed through on his argument when he went to Washington to urge Congress to ease restrictions on hydropower dams, of which Maine has 68 not generating electricity.
A national monument. One of the more aggressive stances taken by LePage in recent months is against the creation of a national monument in the Katahdin region, which the Natural Resources Council of Maine favors. He led the passage of a bill against the monument earlier this year and has taken many other steps to oppose it.
Natural Resources Council of Maine’s Pohlmann says LePage’s interference with the group’s donors backfired. After the group sent LePage’s letter to its 16,000 members, hundreds sent donations, and there has been a surge in new and returning members. In a recent fundraising email, she urged donors to send their thoughts directly to the governor through an e-card.
“If the governor thought that hunting down the addresses of NRCM members and sending them a letter would cause them to stop donating, then I would have to say it backfired massively,” Pohlmann said in a written statement Friday. “We believe this further proves that Maine people reject his war on Maine’s environment and his outdated notion that our environment and economy are somehow in conflict.”
A dispute between a well-funded environmental advocacy group accustomed to working closely with past administrations and a conservative governor whose campaign rhetoric included promises to ease what he described as oppressive environmental regulations that stifles business was not unexpected. But the animosity has deepened during the past six years and — as is the case with so many of LePage’s public conflicts — it’s gotten personal and nasty.
There’s no reason to expect a ceasefire.
As Maine’s paper industry continues to decline and pressure mounts on the state’s fisheries, there will be runs at the creation of new industries and calls for government intervention — most clearly illustrated in the Katahdin national monument fight — from many different angles, particularly in rural and northern areas where jobs are needed most. Expect LePage and the Natural Resources Council of Maine to address those problems from opposite ends of the political spectrum.