By LANCE TAPLEY | May 10, 2013 | Portland Phoenix
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Maine’s cherished environment may be threatened as never before by the gargantuan forces of economic globalization. In reaction, the state’s environmental movement is coalescing into a force stronger than ever. There are new players in the game — including Occupy — augmenting the old guard.
Not surprising for a state that sticks up into Canada, several big threats have Canadian connections:
• a proposed east-west superhighway and utility corridor cutting across Maine’s middle from Quebec to New Brunswick;
• a proposal by a giant Canadian energy corporation, J.D. Irving, to dig a big open-pit mine for gold, silver, and copper at Bald Mountain in the heart of the fabled North Woods — allowed by a loosening of mining regulations rammed through the previous Legislature;
• the possibility that highly toxic Canadian tar-sands crude oil could be pumped through an existing pipeline from Montreal across numerous Maine (and New Hampshire, Vermont, and Quebec) towns to Portland Harbor to be loaded into tankers.
“Maine is in the way,” is how Jym St. Pierre, the longtime activist with the group Restore: The North Woods, describes the challenge to the state’s environment and environmentalists.
“An unabashed corporate takeover” is the way Jim Freeman, veteran Earth Firster and an Occupy organizer, describes the danger.
Big corporations, “the true eco-terrorists,” says Jonathan Carter, former Green Party candidate for governor, have become “more ferocious.”
In response to the challenges, “there’s certainly a burst of activity,” St. Pierre says. In particular, the environmental cause at the grass roots has been energized and synergized by the Occupy movement.
At recent, crowded legislative hearings on environmental bills — where the eco-friendly folk vastly outnumbered the corporate lobbyists — Occupy activists were numerous. In new groups that have sprung up to meet the specific new threats, including opponents to the East-West Highway and the tar-sands oil, Occupiers are well represented.
Occupy “woke up a lot of people. It was a shot in the arm” to various causes, Freeman says. “The Occupy movement normalized protest,” says Lew Kingsbury, an Occupy Augusta organizer now active with several of the causes.
There are signs, too, that the environmental movement has recently broadened far beyond the stereotypical coastal retired person, Portland yuppie, or back-to-the-land hippie.
Charles Fitzgerald, of Atkinson, a former Green Party congressional candidate, says, “One of the greatest pieces of good luck of my lifetime” — he’s 79 — is to participate in the East-West Highway opposition.
“It’s not just fringe people,” he says, but the “smart and focused” locals who have resided in his part of pastoral central Maine, the Piscataquis Valley, for many years — a “broad spectrum” including truck drivers, woodsmen, and farmers.
“Salt of the earth” folks, Freeman says, have joined three new grass-roots organizations: the Stop the East-West Corridor coalition; 350 Maine, an anti-fossil-fuel group opposed to the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line corporation’s use of tar-sands oil from Alberta; and Thanks But No Tank, the Searsport-based group that recently succeeded in blocking a 14-story-high liquid-propane tank from being constructed in that coastal community (the group is sticking around to deal with other possible industrial threats).
Peter Vigue, the Cianbro construction giant’s CEO and chief promoter of the East-West Highway, impoliticly calls the state’s central region the “empty middle.” The locals, however, have told him there’s somebody there. Testifying to the breadth of opposition, the towns of Monson and Sangerville have passed moratoriums on development connected to the highway.
Likewise, Casco, Bethel, Raymond, and Waterford in southern and western Maine have opposed the pipeline’s transport of tar-sands oil (along with 39 towns in Vermont and others in New Hampshire and Quebec, according to Bob Klotz of 350 Maine). The 236-mile pipeline at one point goes alongside Sebago Lake, a recreational mecca and source of Portland’s drinking water. (The present flow of regular crude oil would have to be reversed. It now goes from South Portland, where tankers unload it, to a refinery in Montreal.)
Even Democratic Senator Troy Jackson, the assistant majority leader from far-northern Allagash, who in a recent legislative hearing opposed bills that would put up roadblocks to a Bald Mountain mine, admitted in an interview that he has constituents “on both sides of the issue” — despite the touted economic benefit to his poor Aroostook County district. He also admitted he’s personally “not 100 percent for” the mine.
Remarkably, the biggest threats now exercising environmentalists are not imminent (see sidebar, “The Issues”). The quick and muscular reaction to them expresses the movement’s strength, but it also may be an expression in the Internet Age of the knowledge — or suspicions — on the part of environmentalists of the interconnected, long-range machinations of global capital.
The 350 Maine and anti-mining activists, for example, suspect connections between what they are opposing and the East-West Highway. They say it could be used as a conduit for tar-sands oil as well as ore extracted at Bald Mountain. Cianbro’s Vigue, after all, has promoted it as an “energy corridor.”
“It’s legitimate to worry” about the hidden agenda, says the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s longtime chief lobbyist, Pete Didisheim. Vigue’s statements about what the corridor would carry have been vague and ever-changing.
A BASE OF STRENGTH
The environmental movement in Maine “has been strong for a long time,” says Didisheim. The pre-eminent state environmental organization, the 54-year-old NRCM has 12,000 members, a $2-million annual budget, and 21 staffers. It not only lobbies on legislation: it monitors the all-important rules promulgated after legislation is passed, speaks out on federal issues, and engages in legal actions.
Over the past 15 years — typically, in coalition with other groups — the NRCM has successfully pushed for conservation-land-acquisition bonds; the recycling of electronic waste; the dismantling of Kennebec and Penobscot River dams; and the creation of the Efficiency Maine trust, which financially assists businesses and residents to conserve energy. The NRCM recently helped restore the alewife run in the St. Croix River.
Despite national surveys showing a weakening of environmental concerns during the continuing economic doldrums, in Maine support for preserving the environment remains high — a “pretty stable sentiment,” Didisheim says. In a poll done for his group in 2011, over 90 percent of Mainers said environmental preservation should be a priority of lawmakers.
While in the past Maine’s established eco-organizations have found themselves at loggerheads with single-issue groups (in the 1980s it took years for the forces working to shut down the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant to bring the NRCM to an anti-nuclear position), the mainline outfits are now working on many issues with the new grass roots.
Klotz, 350 Maine’s chief organizer, notes that the NRCM and the Sierra Club are cooperating with his group on the pipeline issue and on other global-warming concerns. (The “350” comes from the group’s affiliation with 350.org, the international organization pushing for policies to reduce global-warming atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million.)
Both the NRCM and the Sierra Club are opposed to the East-West Highway and are working to retighten the mining law. This effectively puts them in bed with radical Occupiers. Klotz, for example, received his political baptism with Occupy. For him, in fact, 350 Maine is “an Occupy working group.”
The two wings of the movement complement each other. The two biggest groups, the NRCM and the Maine Audubon Society, have money, constant legislative presence, political respect, and realism (speaking of state legislation, Didisheim observes, “We pursue what we believe can pass”). The grass-roots groups’ strengths include passion, intense focus, and the ability to bring in new blood.
Maine Audubon is seen among activists as more conservative than the NRCM. But it’s opposed to the East-West Highway, and it supports tightening the mining regulations — though for Audubon the highway issue is not a priority, says Jennifer Burns Gray, Audubon’s lobbyist. The group has not taken a position on the pipeline. Gray says it focuses on issues affecting wildlife and their habitat.
SOME DIVIDE PERSISTS
Not all divisions between the grass-roots activists and the environmental establishment have disappeared. The single-issue people tend to see the establishment groups as too conservative and too eager to compromise. For instance, while Stop the East-West Corridor is pushing for legislation to make it virtually impossible for state government to cooperate on highway projects with private corporations, the NRCM is only supporting bills to halt the present highway proposal.
It’s a class thing, Jim Freeman says: the proper folks in organizations like the NRCM, Maine Audubon, and the Sierra Club “live more in a bubble” and don’t mix with ordinary working people.
But the major division on issues among Maine environmental activists belies the class analysis — the development of windmills.
The flashing lights from “industrial wind” can be seen from all the mountains now, laments Jonathan Carter, who heads up the Forest Ecology Network and lives in Lexington, near the Appalachian Trail. He and some other grass-roots environmentalist types criticize the NRCM and Audubon for their support of mountain wind projects.
Both NRCM’s Didisheim and Audubon’s Gray use the same phrase to express their groups’ support for windmills: they should be “appropriately sited.” Both organizations have successfully opposed some wind projects, such as the turbines proposed for Redington Mountain, near Carrabassett Valley.
The division on wind power, however, most simply reflects the fact that, as an alternative to fossil fuels that pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, wind generation is popular among many rank-and-file environmentalists and, polls show, the general public — but it is not popular among hikers on Maine’s lovely mountain ridges or the folks who live nearby.
Even Occupy organizer Lew Kingsbury, involved in the anti-East-West Highway and anti-mining campaigns, says of windmills, “They’re not nuclear power. They’re not going to kill anybody.”
FROM DEFENSE TO OFFENSE
In spite of the NRCM’s position on wind power, Carter says the group “tackles important work,” citing its strong stand in the clash several years ago over Plum Creek’s plan for Moosehead Lake, the state’s largest inland water body.
The Land Use Regulation Commission’s 2009 go-ahead to Plum Creek to develop Moosehead was the NRCM’s biggest recent disappointment, although the group was successful in helping to reduce the project’s size. The other significant recent loss was last year’s loosening of restrictions on open-pit mining, allowing Bald Mountain and possibly other locations in Maine to be excavated on a large scale.
Because the first two years of Republican Governor Paul LePage’s term coincided with his party’s control of the Legislature, environmental groups had to go strong on defense. With Democratic support and the help of the few remaining Republican moderates, they beat back many of the most regressive bills, such as one gutting the returnable-bottle law. In the last session they lost also on several bills that weakened state agencies regulating the environment.
Now, however, the NRCM — emboldened by the seating of a Democratic Legislature and in cooperation with other established advocacy groups and the enlivened grass roots — is trying to take the initiative on a variety of environmental issues.
This spring, the movement is seeing a rebirth or, at least, a re-blossoming. Expressing this development in the sober tones of Maine Audubon, Gray says, “The voice of the environmental community has gotten stronger and more effective.”
In the end, the movement’s juices are flowing because the threats to Maine and the Earth are, for many people, enormous and becoming greater. The global Big Money behind these threats can sometimes seem like a Goliath. But as Melanie Lanctot, representing a coalition of “green churches” at a recent hearing on energy legislation, observed: “David won.”
SIDEBAR: The national park contradiction
• Yes, Maine people want their environment preserved, as the polls have shown. That point has been demonstrated in long-standing public approval of the idea proposed by Restore: the North Woods for a 3.2-million-acre Maine Woods National Park and Preserve, which would be bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite parks combined.
Jym St. Pierre has a handout listing a dozen Maine opinion polls over the last dozen years showing firm support — with a majority even in the Second District, where park opponents have been most vocal.
But here’s the contradiction: strikingly, Maine’s political class, with the notable exception of Democratic 1st District Representative Chellie Pingree, will not even support a federal study of the value of a park. The Legislature two years ago swiftly and nearly unanimously passed a resolution opposing a study.
Deferring to this lack of political will, the major environmental groups have not gotten enthusiastically behind the Restore plan. A 3.2-million-acre park is “just not feasible,” the NRCM’s Pete Didisheim claims.
St. Pierre’s explanation is that support for the park is “broad and soft,” while opposition is “narrow and deep and loud and intimidating.” He lists the opponents: the politically powerful forest industry, snowmobilers’ groups, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, and zealous property-rights advocates.
For a smaller park proposal, however, that situation appears to be changing. Both the NRCM and Maine Audubon are expressing interest in philanthropist Roxanne Quimby’s desire to give 100,000-plus acres to the federal government of land she has accumulated east of Baxter State Park for a combined park and multi-use recreation area.
Based a consultant’s recent study laying out the economic impact of such a park, says Didisheim, “we are enthusiastic about the potential benefits for the region and for Maine as a whole.” Neither the NRCM nor Audubon, however, has taken a formal position yet on the Quimby gift.
Even though, presumably, millions of people nationally would enjoy a national park for non-economic reasons, the economic argument is, locally, the important one.
SIDEBAR: The Issues
• How are Maine’s major environmental issues playing out in the legislative session now in progress? As Audubon’s Jennifer Gray puts it, there won’t be a “big leap forward this year.” LePage and his veto power still occupy the governor’s office. But with supportive Democratic leadership it’s possible that some reforms can be enacted and anti-environmental legislation beaten back.
Activists are behind seven, largely overlapping anti-highway bills. Although Cianbro is still pushing for the highway, it did not show up at the hearings. Anti-highway troops showed up in droves, including representatives of businesses on existing East-West roads who fear a diversion of traffic onto a superhighway. The Transportation Committee will probably combine the bills into one. Certain to be in it: rescinding the $300,000 for the study of the 220-mile, private toll road’s feasibility. Not even the governor supports the study now.
LD 1302, sponsored by assistant Democratic House floor leader Jeff McCabe, is supported by the mainstream environmental organizations. It would put many restrictions on mining — perhaps making open-pit mining impossible. At the Environment and Natural Resources Committee hearing on it and other mining bills, anti-mining speakers greatly outnumbered those who said let the rule-making take its course on last year’s loosening of restrictions. Irving has not announced definite plans to mine at Bald Mountain.
At the hearing, Democratic Representative Ralph Chapman of Brooksville told horror stories of past mining in his district that saw few jobs provided and huge, still-ongoing pollution costs. The NRCM’s Pete Didisheim thinks “some elements” of 1302 may pass. LD 1059, which would fully repeal last year’s law giving the green light to mining, is supported by grass-roots activists, but might have little chance to get by the governor’s veto.
The pipeline corporations trying to get permission to send tar-sands oil from Alberta through pipelines west, south (see: Keystone XL controversy), and east, have not announced whether they want to pump oil to Portland through the existing Montreal-Portland pipeline. But the Portland pipeline company, controlled by ExxonMobil, has expressed interest in that use, and one Canadian company, Enbridge, is asking for permission to send the oil to Montreal.
LD 1362, sponsored by Representative Ben Chipman, the Portland independent, would establish a two-year moratorium on tar-sands-oil use and require the Department of Environmental Protection to study the potential effects on Maine. The NRCM supports the bill, but, since pipelines are regulated by the feds, it also wants the Environment and Natural Resources Committee to get involved in making sure a proper federal permitting process is followed.
Several bills before the Energy and Utilities Committee promote the use of renewable energy, including LD 1085, An Act to Establish the Renewable Energy Feed-in Tariff, which has strong support from 350 Maine and the Sierra Club. It would give individuals the right to “feed in” to the electricity grid energy produced by their solar panels or a windmill and get paid for it.
Environment Maine, an up-and-coming activist group based in Portland — another example of the broadening of the state’s environmental movement — has raised the alarm about LDs 1187 and 1262, which are being pushed by some businesses. They ask the public to finance a natural-gas pipeline from the shale formations of the Mid-Atlantic states that produce gas using controversial “fracking” techniques.
Last year the Legislature allowed the Norridgewock private landfill to expand. This year Hillary Lister, the state’s tireless anti-waste warrior, is pushing for LD 1363, which puts a one-year moratorium on landfill expansion. Its prospects appear good, though she worries about what the sizable lobbying effort mounted by the waste industry may engender in other legislation.
SIDEBAR: Finding an economic argument
• A big contribution of the new people in the environment movement is their talk about the need for economic alternatives to the big threats. In the history of Maine environmentalism, this is an uncommon conversation — as a rule, the fight has been reactive.
The discussion has arisen because almost all development plans rely on a single argument: jobs — a forceful one in a poor state.
To be sure, environmentalists have long spoken about how Maine’s tourism industry will be protected by preservation of the environment — an argument freshly made by Thanks But No Tank. And they propose economic alternatives such as less-environmentally-damaging energy sources —decentralized solar, wind, tidal, and small hydro —as a counter to nuclear, coal, oil, and giant dams.
Those suggestions, however, are neither comprehensive responses to Maine’s general lack of good jobs nor specific alternatives to many job-promising industrial proposals.
But now Chris Buchanan, the statewide coordinator of Stop the East-West Corridor, is promoting local cooperatives, putting “workers and the environment first rather than the bottom line.” She cites historical models — Franklin D. Roosevelt’s rural electrical cooperatives created in the Great Depression — as well as current ones — the ubiquitous credit unions; Fedco, the Maine garden-supply co-op; and, in Spain, the Mondragon corporation, a co-op federation that has been a mainstay, she says, of that country’s economy throughout its current crisis.
Recently, at an anti-East-West-corridor meeting that saw 60 people attend in the tiny village of Parkman, in Piscataquis County, the cooperatives idea was a central topic and, she and others say, was well received. This type of business “does well because workers are happy and motivated,” Buchanan says. Usually, workers own the cooperatives.
The economic-alternatives conversation is spreading. Charles Fitzgerald, a successful businessman, talks about local, “agrarian” economic development. He mentions small farmers and a cheese-maker in his area.
Still, there’s no real economic plan articulated by the anti-highway folk — or by others in the grass roots. “Nothing concrete yet,” Jim Freeman says. Buchanan admits the cooperative idea requires a lot of public education.
Especially, there’s no alternative to corporate plans for Maine’s vast forest, its largest resource, which figures in many environmental battles and is owned by large, distant corporations — increasingly, by Wall Street investment firms with a hunger for immediate profits.
The last time Maine environmentalists took a big step toward an economic alternative for the forest was the Ban Clearcutting citizen-initiated referendum campaign of the 1990s, which Jonathan Carter directed. If industrial clearcutting were banned, labor-intensive forestry would have to be practiced.
Although the ban was highly popular at the start of the battle, it was beaten down by millions of dollars of fear-inducing advertising by the forest industry (about, of course, jobs). Most Maine politicians, Democrats as well as Republicans — and even the NRCM and Maine Audubon — didn’t support the ban (though the Sierra Club did). (Disclosure: the author was involved in the Ban Clearcutting campaign.)
The clearcutting battle demonstrated how, when public fears are raised about jobs — or when more jobs are promised — Democratic politicians are not certain votes for the environment.
There were some Democratic votes last year for relaxing the mining law and for the public funding, to the tune of $300,000, of a Maine Department of Transportation study of the East-West Highway’s feasibility, even though Cianbro’s Vigue had alleged the highway-corridor was to be created only with private funds.
Until there are well-thought-out and clearly articulated alternative economic plans for Maine’s future, however — and perhaps some appealing politicians enunciating them—the environmental movement will always be, fundamentally, playing defense.