L.D. 1810 is an effort to thwart the environmental laws that protect Maine’s water and wildlife.
CAMDEN — During the late 1950s and early 1960s, my father often took me spring fishing on weekends. Occasionally, we’d travel north from our Waterville home to the Upper Kennebec River Valley to fish for brook trout on Wyman Lake — a reservoir created in the early 1930s when a hydroelectric dam was built on the Kennebec River near Bingham.
The excitement of spending a day trout fishing with my father often turned to disappointment when the river was covered with miles of 4-foot pulpwood. On more than half of our trips to Wyman Lake, we’d return home without wetting a fishing line or our boat.
Growing up during the Depression, my dad learned not to complain. But I sensed his growing irritation at being turned away repeatedly by the sight of pulpwood choking the upper river. Within days, those same logs would fill the river near our home, to be turned into rolls of toilet paper at Scott Paper Co.’s mill in Winslow.
Years later, I understood my father’s unstated disappointment at not being able to launch a boat on Wyman Lake. Working as a welder at Scott, my father knew the mill depended on the river to deliver logs as much as he depended on a paycheck. The word “takings” was not part of anyone’s lexicon in the 1950s and 1960s; however, the nearly exclusive use of the river by timber companies and paper mills constituted a taking, nonetheless.
It caused heartache for my father and many other millworkers who boated and fished the Kennebec River. The timber companies and paper mills dominated the Kennebec and other public waters of Maine for more than a century without compensating taxpayers.
And when Maine’s rivers were cleaned of industry pollutants, taxpayers bore the expense. It took the federal Clean Water Act, spearheaded by U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, to clean our rivers.
Now, 60 years later, the large private timberland owners, with the support of Republican leaders in Augusta, are seeking financial compensation from the public for environmental regulations placed on their lands.
Their request falls on deaf ears with me. I’m old enough to remember the poor condition of the Kennebec when industry controlled Maine’s rivers without compensating the public for their use.
Furthermore, the public already subsidizes forest landowners with Tree Growth Tax laws, Forest Legacy dollars, North American Wetland Conservation Act funds, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grants, forest fire protection, forest insect control and many other state and federal publicly funded programs.
L.D. 1810 may appear to be designed to help the “little guy,” but that’s untrue, according to state “takings” law research conducted by Georgetown University’s Law School.
The biggest beneficiaries will be real estate developers and large timberland owners who, if the Land Use Regulation Commission is weakened with passage of another bill, L.D. 1798, will be able to subdivide and sell their lands—lands that, incidentally, are taxed as tree growth, not at the higher developable land tax rate.
Or, if these companies choose to keep their lands, L.D. 1810 will provide taxpayer dollars as compensation for timber-harvesting restrictions.
We’ve given large landowners and speculative real estate developers enough of our tax dollars. And besides, how can Maine afford to pay for takings legislation when Gov. LePage and Senate President Kevin Raye claim that Maine will run out of money by April if we don’t pass a budget with major funding cuts?
How can the Legislature justify giving taxpayer money to large corporate landowners when many Mainers are struggling to make ends meet, with many more at risk of losing Medicaid?
The bill is a ploy to stop environmental regulations by generating lawsuits and confusion over landowner compensation. Republican leaders have attacked LURC, Maine’s site law, the Land For Maine’s Future program and Department of Environmental Protection regulations protecting wildlife habitat and shoreland zoning.
If the takings bill passes, the result will hasten the erosion of public resources we hold most dear about Maine — clean water and healthy wildlife populations. L.D. 1810 ought to be deep-sixed alongside the Kennebec River’s sunken pulp logs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Ron Joseph of Camden is a native Mainer who retired in 2010 following a 33-year career as a state wildlife biologist.