Brownie Carson reflects on his years as an advocate for Maine’s environment
Everett “Brownie” Carson, 62, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, plans to step down by the end of this year after more than a quarter century at the helm of the environmental organization. Mainebiz sat down to talk with him about how the council’s relationship with the business community has changed over the years, what “stuns” him about some of our lawmakers and his 1955 Lincoln convertible, the kind of car he says “environmentalists aren’t supposed to talk about.”
Carson: I think we were often occupied with trying to stop one poorly conceived development or other, what might be called “bad things” from happening. The Big A Dam had been proposed for the west branch of the Penobscot River. It would have drowned a magnificent stretch of rapids and part of the Ripogenus Gorge and done a lot of damage to a healthy, self-sustaining population of landlocked salmon that’s renowned and brings fishermen from all over the place. We worked for most of my first three or four years to try to stop that river from being dammed. Now, and let’s say over the last decade, we have been involved in restoring rivers, oftentimes with a broad coalition of sportsmen and women and other conservation groups.
In the area of toxics, we’ve just played a significant role with a number of great partners in the last legislative session to establish a legal framework in Maine by which we will gradually remove consumer products from market, like some of the baby toys and baby bottles that have chemicals in them that are very clearly harmful to babies and young children.
On the energy policy front, instead of fighting to stop the dam from being built, we’re working with the Maine chamber and a lot of individual businesses and other environmental partners to advance energy efficiency and to do more conservation, to help create clean renewable energy here in the state so that we will have a stronger and more vibrant economic future as well as cleaner air and a better environment.
Certainly near the top would be removal of the Edwards Dam and restoration of the Kennebec River, which is an ongoing project. Actually two dams came out, the first one was Edwards and then the Fort Halifax dam on the Sebasticook. When I started working at NRCM 26 years ago, the Kennebec was really struggling to support any fish at all and it’s now really healthy and full of a diversity of aquatic life.
With respect to the business community, the council’s relationship certainly has changed in the decades you’ve served as executive director. What comes to mind is the antagonism around the forestry referenda of the ‘90s versus the relative cooperation surrounding initiatives like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative credits more recently. <strong
Both NRCM and our friends in the Maine business community have worked very hard to communicate, to build bridges, to find the ground that we all share. It hasn’t been, obviously, 100% cozy; we have had quite a donnybrook with Plum Creek. We continue to appeal that case because we think the harm that such a massive development around Moosehead Lake would cause is ill advised.
We’re still advocates, that’s for sure, but when we’ve looked at issues like clean renewable energy or efficiency or safer chemicals or restoring rivers, we have found ways to work cooperatively, in most cases. Sometimes it saves time; I think it always saves money.
I hope that we’re perceived as an organization that always does our homework, that grounds our positions and our advocacy on sound science, on good economic analysis, on a clear vision for the best direction for the state of Maine to go. It’s a privilege for me to be executive director of NRCM and be able to call Dana Connors, the head of the Maine chamber, or any one of a number of business leaders in the state and say, “We’ve got an issue we’d like to discuss with you,” and have them say, “Let’s do it.”
We still have some wonderful conservation leaders in the Republican Party. Some of them are senior statesmen, like [Horace] Hoddy Hildreth or Sherry Huber, but I think particularly in the last couple of years there has been more bipartisan support in the Legislature for environmental initiatives than we’ve had in a long time. There are still people who don’t — well how to describe them… — who don’t understand the importance of protecting the environment or see it as a luxury or an unnecessary expense or frankly see only the short-term costs and don’t see the long-term benefits of clean air, of healthier lungs, of clear skies along the coast.
It still stuns me when I think there are people who don’t take the threat to our climate from global warming seriously. We have a few of them in the Legislature, we have some notables in the United States Congress, but by and large the people of the state of Maine understand it.
Sustainability and earth-friendly practices have certainly climbed higher on business owners’ priority lists in recent years.
Well that’s because they can save lots and lots of money.
I honestly believe that there’s a strong environmental ethic that is part of the vast majority of Maine people. When a business owner sees that he or she can save money by reducing the use of energy, by installing compact fluorescent light bulbs or more efficient heating and air conditioning and ventilation systems, so long as the cost up front is doable, I think most people will do it.
We still run into trouble when large conglomerates or multinationals or big investors or venture capitalists buy Maine businesses and try to run them on the cheap, and they don’t invest either in the people or in the businesses. When we have old-fashioned fights over environmental standards or a new environmental program, more often than not the opposition will come from really entrenched, sort of old-fashioned business interests, and not from people who are thinking about a sustainable future.
You can start with the fact that there isn’t a paper mill left in Maine that still owns its wood base, its lands. That has been a huge change that goes back now 12 or 14 years. Great Northern Paper Co. employed over 3,000 people at the mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket when I started work here and they owned a little more than 10% of the land area of the state of Maine. I don’t know what current employment is but it’s in the hundreds rather than in the thousands, and there’s no land connected to those mills anymore, so that the mills themselves have to go out and pay market prices; sort of like buying oil on the spot market, you never know much you’re going to have to pay for it. I think a lot of those mill owners would turn back the calendar if they could, in fact I’ve heard a number of them say that they would.
The biggest problem is with the former International Paper mill at Jay, now owned by Verso. The water pollution from that mill is still problematic. That mill is one of four owned by a New York investment firm, and from NRCM’s perspective, they ought to invest the money to run that mill more efficiently, to reduce the use of energy, to reduce the outflow of pollutants that actually could be used in the production cycle.
With respect to Verso, we worked a lot with them and we came to agreement on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. That was a long and tough negotiation, but we got to a point where we both agreed. Having a significant disagreement even with a particular business on one issue doesn’t mean we can’t find common ground on others.
From NRCM’s perspective, wind power siting needs to be done carefully. Neither we nor wind developers, sometimes we won’t agree with each other, sometimes we won’t agree with opponents. I think that land-based wind has a very important place in Maine’s clean energy future.
There’s certainly great possibility, particularly if our Congress will enact comprehensive climate and energy legislation this year and put a price on carbon, which is absolutely essential, and if Congress and the federal government are willing to invest funds to do the R and D to develop cost effective offshore wind energy.
We cannot afford, as we’re reminded every day with more pictures of the Gulf oil spill disaster, to stay on this current course with dirty coal and polluting oil. We will be living with the Gulf disaster for, I suspect, decades.
It would be great for the people of Maine to own the whole river corridor along the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. It is one of the greatest wilderness river experiences in the eastern United States. And while we’re at it, we should look at the possibility of also purchasing portions of the St. John River corridor, also a wonderful wilderness canoe trip, that weren’t bought by The Nature Conservancy 12 or 14 years ago. Irving appears to be interested in selling those lands and it’s an opportunity we might not have for a lot of years. We should seize it now.
And I don’t think we’ve done as much as we could have to ensure access to the coast and a strong working waterfront, ready access to the working waterfront for our fishermen. That’s a really important endeavor for the next five or 10 years and beyond.
My middle name is Brown. I was named after my mother’s younger brother, who was a naval aviator in World War II, who unfortunately I didn’t know because he was killed in early 1945 in the Pacific. And also after his father, my grandfather, whom I also didn’t know because he died young.
I drive a 2003 Honda Civic hybrid. And I am just finishing — environmentalists aren’t supposed to talk about cars like this — but I am just finishing the work to bring my 1955 Lincoln convertible back from about 20 years [of spotty attention.] For the most part, it’s either been in a barn or in pieces in various shops. I hope that it will be 100% roadworthy by the Fourth of July. This is a car that I bought for $200 in Seattle, Washington, while visiting my brother two days before I left for Vietnam in the fall of 1968. I drove it across the country when I got back in 1969, and it was my first car for a long time and then it was my second car and then it sat in a barn.
My wife would see this old convertible sitting in the back of what was really an oversized garage every day and eventually she said to me, “Now, are we going to sell that or are we going to restore that?” And I said, “Does that mean I have permission?”