by Henry Garfield
Bangor Metro business profile March 2009
Brownie Carson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine stands like a tall tree among Maine’s environmental activists. It’s no wonder that he’s been rooted in natural resources advocacy for 25 years.
When the Natural Resources Council of Maine celebrates its 50th birthday in 2009, Executive Director Brownie Carson will have been at the helm for exactly half that time. And if the passion he brings to his work is any indication, he’s likely to be there for a long time to come.
“This state and its natural beauty are such a gift to all of us,” he says. “Our quality of place and quality of life are part of our competitive advantage, and will be even more so in the future.”
Carson, 61, is tall, physically fit, and soft-spoken, though when he gets rolling on environmental topics, the timbre of his voice changes, belying an enthusiasm that doesn’t require additional volume for emphasis. He grew up hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains in his native Virginia (“A great place to fall in love with the environment,” he says), and came to Maine on family vacations as a teenager. Impressed by both the coast and the north woods, he enrolled at Bowdoin College, but got sidetracked by the Vietnam War.
“On Election Day in 1968, I was too young to vote, but I was in charge of the lives of 46 other people,” he says. “Vietnam politicized me in a big way. I saw how badly thought out the decision to go to war had been, and decided to work for change. That led to a desire to be an activist in all the areas I cared about, from the rights of low-income people to the broader question of civil rights, to protecting the environment.”
After being wounded in the war, Carson returned to Bowdoin. He has lived in Maine ever since. He worked for Pine Tree Legal Assistance for a time before joining the NRCM. He became executive director in 1984.
Founded in 1959 to protect the Allagash Waterway, the National Resources Council of Maine weighs in on environmental issues throughout the state. Its support comes from members, foundations, and what Carson terms “socially responsible” businesses. With an annual operating budget of $2.2 million and a 25-person staff (many of whom, like Carson, have been there for years), NRCM has gained a reputation for thorough research and effective advocacy. “We’re made up of people from every walk of life in Maine, from all over the state, who are all extraordinarily dedicated to the protection of our state’s rivers and wild places, and are committed to the stewardship of them,” Carson says.
Recently, much of their attention has been focused on the north woods. “Plum Creek’s proposal was the largest development proposal ever for any part of Maine,” Carson says. “It was designed and has been pursued, we believe, without regard to its serious environmental impacts and its overall harmful impacts on the wilderness character and the traditional economic activities and strengths of the Moosehead Lake region. We’ve never argued that the area should be preserved as it is. You can do development in a well-thought-out, well-planned way, in a smaller way than Plum Creek is proposing. You can keep the character of the region, and add economic value.”
A positive man, Carson wants NRCM’s message to be positive as well. “We should not simply say ‘no’ to things,” he says, ticking off several accomplishments. NRCM was instrumental in removing dams on the Kennebec River, allowing seals to swim upstream as far as Waterville. The organization is a partner in the ongoing Penobscot River Restoration Project. Another victory was the Sensible Transportation Policy Act, which mandates that the state look at all possible alternatives to new road construction.
“One of the joys of this job is that the council represents the strong environmental ethic that exists throughout Maine,” he says. “We are the voice of Maine’s environment.”