For example, Rep. Bruce Poliquin wants to inflame people to help his campaign along.
By Alan Caron
Portland Press Herald op-ed
Over a thousand Mainers converged on two northern Maine public gatherings last week to argue over a proposal to set aside 87,500 acres of the North Woods as a so-called national monument.
Opposition arguments were familiar to anyone who’s been in Maine for more than a few decades. Protecting the land, say opponents, will destroy Maine’s traditional forest industries and lead to the eventual collapse of the northern economy. Proponents argue that a protected natural forest area will attract a new stream of national and international tourists that will help expand the economy.
These arguments are echoes of ones we’ve had many times through the years, as we cleaned up our rivers and imposed limits on bad practices in the forests. Ironically, they repeat similar arguments that were made long ago, when the state debated setting aside land in the Great North Woods to create the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.
In each of those cases, opponents argued that the proposed change would undercut the traditional natural resource economy and that forestry is incompatible with any other activity. Supporters argued that we can have a strong forest economy and be a good, attractive place for visitors, and that the two should be allies rather than enemies.
Rural Maine is at an unmistakable crossroads, grappling with what kind of future it wants and what it can have. After a long and slow decline in farming and now papermaking, there are too few road signs pointing to a brighter future.
Many Mainers are anxious and angry about how the world around us is changing and how our opportunities are dwindling. They’re worried about losing even more of what little they have. But instead of pulling together to promote the region positively, they spend too much time stuck on the idea that they can keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing but have it now produce a better result.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people hard at work in northern and rural Maine, trying against all odds to guide the area toward a new prosperity. They are getting almost no help from their elected leaders, who seem to spend most of their time driving wedges between people and exploiting anger and regional jealousy for political gain.
I give you, as a case in point, 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin. While U.S. Sen. Angus King engineered two hearings that were open to all views, as part of a healthy and spirited debate, Poliquin immediately invited the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee to come to Maine and lash out against the proposed project.
King was looking for information and understanding. Poliquin isn’t looking for any of those things. All he wants, and all he’ll get, is to inflame people further to help his campaign along.
Northern Maine deserves better. It deserves a full and open conversation about its future, free of partisan politics, trumped-up divisions and scapegoating. It deserves leaders who understand the pain that rural Maine is experiencing but don’t rush to exploit that pain. Angry speeches may feel good, for some, but they do nothing to help northern Maine find the kind of common ground it needs to compete with others for tomorrow’s jobs.
Northern Maine, like the rest of the state, needs leaders who love Maine’s heritage and people, but who also understand that we must change in order to grow.
The first step in that change is a hard one. It requires us to accept the reality that yesterday’s jobs are not coming back. In northern Maine, that means that there can be no real prosperity if the only game in town is the traditional forest industry. One-industry economies are notorious for their instability and failure rate. The remedy – as hard as it is – is to diversify the economy.
That means moving from simply protecting what you have now to becoming open to new ideas. One of them, after all, may be the ticket to a brighter future.
None of that can happen if politics continues to get in the way. Politics, especially now, is enormously skilled at division and miserable at addition. It divides people but rarely unites them. It too often fans fears and prejudices, punishes conversations and collaboration with “the enemy,” and rarely produces anything but short-term victories and long-term morass.
I submit, as exhibits A and B, the U.S. Congress over the last decade and the gubernatorial administration of Paul LePage over the last five. Both produce copious amounts of loud and angry speeches and almost no tangible results.
Northern Maine, and for that matter all of Maine, deserves better and needs more. And we have no time to lose. While we’re debating, the rest of New England is slowly leaving us behind.
Alan Caron owns Caron Communications and is the author of Maine’s Next Economy and Reinventing Maine Government.