One describes the range of cuts as a ‘full-on attack’ on a natural resource-dependent state.
by Colin Woodard, staff writer
Portland Press Herald news story
President Donald Trump has not backed off on a wide range of federal budget cuts and program eliminations that critics have for months warned would devastate Maine’s economy and environment.
The cuts to discretionary programs would disrupt scientific research and social services, hack funding to public broadcasting and Maine universities and scientific research institutions, and disrupt the economic prospects of fishing, forestry and former mill communities.
“It’s pretty much a full-on attack on environmental protection in America and would have a crippling impact here in Maine, because we depend so heavily on clean air, clean water, and a brand identity that is defined by our environment,” says Pete Didisheim, advocacy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “There hasn’t been any positive motion with this final budget, if anything it’s gotten slightly worse.”
If the White House has its way, it would mean the end of the University of Maine’s Sea Grant program – which provides research and technical expertise to fishermen and other marine trades – the likely closure of the Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm, the end of a successful partnership program to clean-up Casco Bay and beach water quality testing statewide.
Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which provides legal aid to indigent citizens to pursuit civil suits and whose volunteers helped uncover the national “robo-signing” mortgage scandal, would lose its funding from the federal Legal Services Corporation, which is also slated for elimination.
The Department of Environmental Protection would lose millions of dollars in federal grant funding, including the elimination of grants to help detect and remediate radon and lead paint contamination in homes and to protect Maine lakes from pollution caused by road building and other “non-point source” threats. DEP receives more than 20 percent of its funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, whose overall budget the White House wants to slash by 31 percent.
DEP spokesman David Madore did not respond to a request for comment, and the office of Gov. Paul LePage has said that they will not comment on the budget until they receive official notification of cuts – something that would presumably only happen if and when they were approved by Congress.
The White House also did not respond to an interview request.
To go into effect, the president’s budget has to be adopted and passed by Congress, where members of both parties have reacted poorly to the proposals.
“I think there are going to be a lot of opportunities for Congress to take what the president has done and reevaluate,” says Tom Abello, external affairs director of the Nature Conservancy’s Maine chapter. “Maine is really lucky to have champions of the natural resource programs at the federal level,” he added, saying that all four members of Maine’s Congressional delegation were broadly supportive of keeping funding of key programs in place.
The budget would cut state grants to help states meet federal clean air and clean water laws by 44 percent . “States may be able to adjust to reduced funding levels by reducing or eliminating additional activities not required under Federal law, prioritizing programs, and seeking other funding sources including fees,” the budget document explains.
The EPA’s “brownfield” program, which has helped Maine towns from Berwick to Brewer clean up and redevelop contaminated industrial sites would be cut by 37 percent.
“We have more than 400 brownfield sites in Maine and we use that funding to redevelop former industrial sites so we can create jobs again and we’re really good at it,” says Didisheim. “This isn’t just an attack on clean air and clean water and the environment, it’s also against the economic interests of communities that are hoping to clean up toxic waste so they can reuse those sites.”
EPA’s Superfund program, which helps clean up severely contaminated sites, including the former Callahan mine site in Brooksville and 15 others in Maine, faces a 27 percent cut, according to a detailed breakdown of the agency’s budget obtained by the National Association of Clear Air Agencies.
“This Budget challenges the EPA to identify efficiencies in administrative costs and optimize the use of settlement funds for the cleanup actions at sites where those funds are available,” the official White House proposal document explains.
The proposed elimination of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Estuarine Research Reserves program, would make it impossible for the Wells Reserve in southern Maine and the Great Bay National Estuarine Reserve in southern New Hampshire to continue operating in their current forms, as it supplies a majority of their budgets.
The elimination of the EPA’s similarly named National Estuaries Program would likely close the doors of the Casco Bay Partnership, which funds environmental and ocean acidification monitoring sites in Casco Bay, and fosters partnerships and data sharing among scientific researchers, environmental groups, sewer district boards, landowners and town governments. The Maine Healthy Beaches Program, which tests beach water quality, would shut down if a proposed elimination of EPA’s beaches program goes through.
All of these cuts had been proposed in earlier versions of the president’s budget, but the final document released Wednesday also includes a 10 percent cut to the National Science Foundation, the primary source of basic research funding outside the biomedical field. Numerous Maine institutions – from the University of Maine System and University of New England to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay receive NSF funding.
“Since World War II, the US has led the world in its investment in scientific research,” GMRI chief scientific officer Andrew Pershing said in a written statement. “The NSF and other science investments create jobs, save lives, and make our country stronger in the long-term.”
Asked to comment, University of Maine system spokesman Dan Demeritt said it was “far too early in the federal budget process to know what the final outcome will be” and that the university would be working with Maine’s congressional delegation to ensure they understood “how various federal budget proposals could impact our work in Maine.”
The University’s 31 year old Sea Grant program – funded by a NOAA program slated for complete elimination — has funded groundbreaking work on how to monitor juvenile lobster populations so researchers can better predict future health of the stock; assisted mussel, scallop and kelp farmers with research and methodological expertise; developed organic certification guidelines for sea vegetable growers; and helped monitor and contain bacteria and other marine pests that plague shellfish growers and harvesters.
Sea Grant researchers created the Fishermen’s Forum – the industry’s premier event – in 1976, and helped found the Portland Fish Exchange and the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, which researches issues of concern to the industry. Sea Grant funding also helped pay for the removal of dams and restoration of fish habitat in the Penobscot River watershed, and now provides $600,000 a year to improve road crossings and culverts there.
Paul Anderson, head of the Maine Sea Grant program, announced last week he would be stepping down in September to become the executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington, previously known as the Penobscot East Resource Center.
Abello, at The Nature Conservancy, is concerned about two other programs slated for elimination that haven’t received public attention thus far: the Department of the Interior’s Forest Legacy Program – which helps conserve working forests — and the Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which provides incentives for private landowners to protect wildlife habitat, build fish passages, and improve forest roads.
“The president’s budget cuts natural resource funding off at the knees, and that’s across the full sweep of natural resources, from oceans to forests,” Abello said.
The White House also seeks to eliminate the Northern Border Commission, an $8 million federal-state partnership that provides funding for infrastructure, land preservation, workforce training, and public services in distressed communities in the “Northern Forest region” of Maine and three other states. It invested $250,000 to help Acme Monaco expand in Presque Isle, another $250,000 to three St. John Valley towns to build boat landings and picnic areas for the 2014 World Acadian Congress, $250,000 to upgrade a roadway to attract investment in a Jay stone quarry, and $200,000 to help Van Buren build a vegetable processing plant for local farmers to expand their markets.
The $484 million Corporation for Public Broadcasting is also still slated for elimination, imperiling about $1.7 million in annual funding to Maine Public, or 14 percent of its budget. “Alternatives to PBS and NPR programming have grown substantially since CPB was first established in 1967, greatly reducing the need for publicly funded programming options,” the budget document states. Maine Public CEO Mark Vogelzang has said this would be “very serious,” but would not mean the network’s five TV stations and 12 radio stations would “go away.”