by George Smith
An outstanding collection of Mainers – including some sportsmen – gathered at the request of Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resource Council of Maine to speak to Governor Paul LePage about environmental issues on January 20 before a live audience of 500 environmentalists at the Augusta Civic Center.
A diverse group of twenty eight people got 90 seconds each to speak to the governor. Those who worked to connect in some real way to the governor and his concerns were the most effective.
Here’s what some of the speakers had to say about public health, wildlife habitat, children, energy, and the economy.
Bucky Owen, former Commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said that hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching is a $1.8 billion industry, and DIF&W, which brings in $110 million in General Fund tax revenue, gets none of that revenue back to fund its budget this year. He cited the economic potential of this industry, with a specific pitch for river restoration and alewives.
Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited hit a homerun with me when he spoke for Maine’s native brook trout.
“Maine has the last true stronghold for brook trout in the eastern United States,” he reported. “Maine has more than 96 percent of the remaining wild lake and pond (brook trout) populations.”
Reardon smartly raised the economic issue by noting that continued stewardship of Maine’s brookies is critical to a range of small businesses including guides and sporting camps.
I also appreciated the remarks – and long trip to Augusta – by Mark Berry, Executive Director of Downeast Lakes Land Trust in Grand Lake Stream.
Berry reported that the trust was founded in 2001 by guides, lodge owners, and residents, has conserved 450 miles of lakeshore and 350,000 acres of forests and wildlife habitats, sustained over 1000 jobs in the timber industry, manages 33,000 acres as a community forest, and is now working to conserve 22,000 acres around Grant Lake Stream – a project that is now a top national priority for the federal Forest Legacy Program.
“The Maine Department of Conservation and the Land for Maine’s Future program have been essential to our success,” Berry said.
C.D. Armstrong, President of Deering Lumber, noted that “most developers also care about the environment,” because they hunt and fish. He said regulations are “confusing” and asked LePage to “bring clarity and consistency” to the regulatory process, and to use “sound science.”
That call for sound science was repeated and seemed to strike a cord with LePage who came back to it in his closing remarks.
Dr. Maroulla Gleaton, a leader of Maine’s medical community, offered some of the most compelling testimony, focused on serious public health problems. “Maine has one of the highest rates of asthma in the country,” she reported, “affecting more than 125,000 Maine people, including nearly 30,000 children. Asthma results in an estimated 65,000 school absences and more than 37,000 work absences each year in Maine.
Gleaton said that many – particularly seniors and children – end up in emergency rooms with difficulty breathing when our pollution levels are high.
Gleaton also talked about mercury pollution, noting that women and young children are warned to restrict their consumption of Maine fish caught in inland waters.
And she finished her presentation expressing concern about “human exposure to… toxic chemicals in the environment… The Center for Disease Control’s most recent assessment found 212 chemicals in people’s blood and urine samples – 75 of which had never before been measured in the U.S. population.”
Birth defects, learning disabilities, cancer, and developmental impacts are the result. Gleaton presented the Governor with three Maine Medical Association resolutions addressing these problems.
John Cooney of Reed & Reed presented the “economic and environmental benefits of wind energy,” wisely beginning his remarks with an economic message: “Wind power projects have already increased Maine’s tax base by more than $925 million, provided an average of nearly 300 construction jobs each year since 2005, and funneled economic development funds directly to some of Maine’s most rural economies – while providing clean energy to our electric grid, displacing other fuels that create more pollution.”
As an aside, you can learn more about the economic value of a wind project by reading my “Stetson Stories” in this blog’s archive.
Garrett Conover, a Maine guide, called wilderness trips “one of the primary engines in the tourism industry. Guests come to enjoy our pristine environment,” he said. He also called for civility and finished his remarks in French, a very nice touch.
LePage heard from several in the forest and logging industries, including Fayette’s Harry Dwyer, whose presentation was particularly good. “We’ve come a long way,” said Dwyer, “to improve our practices. Our increased knowledge dictates more complex rules,” he noted, urging the Governor to “be careful of roll-backs.”
“I can’t compete with those who don’t care about the rules,” he reported, noting, “Government officials are like umpires. They should not be on either side.”
Corky Ellis, founder of Kepware Technologies, said he moved to Maine from New Jersey because he and his wife appreciated our quality of life and environment. They lost all their money in his first five years here, then “got lucky.”
“Many businesses are here in Maine because of the environment,” he said.
Hoddy Hildreth, a well-known Republican businessman, noted that, “Maine has some tough environmental laws, most of which were passed by Republican controlled Legislatures in the late sixties or early seventies,” including “laws like the Site law, the Land Use Regulation Commission, the Shoreland Zoning Law and the Natural Resource Protection Act… These laws… have protected the one, single advantage that Maine has over other states in the northeast in attracting people and businesses: our environment and quality of life.”
Hildreth suggested, “Working on the regulations to make sure they are responsive to the plain intent of the statutes is a better way to go than gutting or repealing the laws.”
That was a familiar refrain throughout the event.
Two guys from the commercial fishing industry spoke. Glen Libby of the Midcoast Fisherman’s Cooperative said when the fish disappeared, “we blamed environmentalists. We blamed the tide. We blamed the moon.”
Then they decided that wasn’t working, as Maine’s 1000 ground fishing boats shrank to just 70.
“We became part of the process,” reported Libby, started group, created a brand, and launched a marketing campaign, working with The Nature Conservancy and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
They came up with ideas that are now being adopted nationally, adding jobs in places like the shrimp industry.
“Our future looks brighter,” he said. “We must stay the course with regulations that leave fish in the water.”
Chad Coffin, President of the Maine Clammers Association, said his industry has achieved “sustainable harvesting” that delivers $13 million a year to harvesters.
Marilyn Meyerhans was another speaker who talked about the importance of the Land for Maine’s Future program, which helped she and her husband purchase and conserve a Manchester apple orchard in an area very vulnerable to development.
The governor heard a plea to keep the new state building code, to help achieve the potential of ecotourism, for reopening the St. Croix River to alewives so lobstermen would have bait, and for keeping pesticides from drifting to adjoining property where they could impact organic farms and children.
LePage even got a stern reminder from Father Richard Senghas that, “We have a solemn moral obligation to protect the environment that God has given us.” He repeated that quote from the Pope twice, reporting that the Vatican has “gone green.”
I was particularly taken by Megan Rice’s presentation for Maine’s children. She spoke for the Environmental Health Strategy Center, expressing concerns about “some widely used chemicals – like bisphenol-A (that) can damage our children’s health. She defended Maine’s Kid-Safe Products Act, “passed almost unanimously by the Maine Legislature. (It) “uses a science-based approach to get the most dangerous chemicals out of products used by my two little girls,” Rice reported.
At the end of the event, when the Governor responded to all that he’d heard, one of his comments really struck home with the large crowd.
“I will never challenge an environmental law based in science,” LePage said. “I believe in good strong environmental law.”
In his response, the Governor said he’d be going after other states that were responsible for Maine’s bad air, and repeated his oft-mentioned case that the business environment is bad and in need of fixing.” He called fishing, forestry, and farming “our foundation.”
He talked about children in a different context than the day’s speakers, noting that too many are leaving Maine because they can’t find good jobs here.
He delighted me by emphasizing his goal of rebuilding Maine’s deer herd, saying, “We have to protect the deer because it’s part of our economy and lives.” He wants the Land for Maine’s Future program to purchase deer yards.
He complained that Maine logs and lobsters were going to Canada, reporting that half of our logs are going to our neighbor to the north.
“Regulations are good, strong, and needed,” he assured the very attentive audience. “We’ve forgotten to use common sense and how to use science as our guide. We’ve become adversarial to the private sector. We’ve got to change that,” he noted.
He said he wanted those who violate environmental laws to pay “severe penalties,” and emphasized that the problem is not the rules, it’s the adversarial nature,” of the process.
He asked environmentalists to partner with him and help create a better attitude.
“I’m very strong on the environment,” he concluded. “There is nothing better than a healthy forest.”
I took 12 pages of notes on the excellent presentations, and then asked members of the audience what they thought.
Bucky Owen said it was a “pretty good (event). He obviously was listening. I had to agree with his comments at the end.”
Mark Berry said his long drive from Washington County was worthwhile because, “I was speaking to 500 people and the entire state today.”
Maureen Drouin of the League of Conservation Voters thought that the “30 messages in 30 different ways… cleverly (noted) that the environment and economy go hand in hand.”
I agree. Those speakers who managed to connect with the Governor in a real way, offering specific examples that hit home with him, did the best. Wouldn’t I love to read the notes he took!