January 21, 2011

Environmentalists make their case

LePage mostly listens, takens notes

By Beth Quimby
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday that he will challenge states with coal-burning plants that degrade Maine's air quality, but he stopped short of reversing his pledge to roll back environmental regulations that dampen economic development.

click image to enlarge

The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick offers the closing remarks at the Roundtable on Maine People and the Environment at the Augusta Civic Center Thursday afternoon. Kirkpatrick is the Rector of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Belfast and also the missioner for environmental stewardship for the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Gov. Paul LePage listens as panel members speak about environmental concerns at the Roundtable on Maine People and the Environment sponsored by Natural Resources of Maine at the Augusta Civic Center Thursday afternoon.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

LePage spoke to about 500 people who turned out for a forum with the state's environmental advocates at the Augusta Civic Center. The event was organized as a counterweight to LePage's series of 22 "red tape removal audits" with business leaders, at which comments have focused on rolling back environmental regulations.

Environmentalists have been on the defensive. Dozens of bills have been filed with the new Republican-led Legislature this session to abolish longstanding environmental laws such as the bottle bill, as well as the Land Use Regulation Commission.

LePage sent shudders through the environmental community during his campaign when he heavily criticized the Department of Environmental Protection, expressed skepticism about the benefits of wind power and questioned the existence of global warming.

He has done little to ease the concerns since taking office. This week, he announced that he supports weakening rules that protect vernal pools from development.

Thursday's forum, organized by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, had the same format that was used for the Maine Business Roundtable in November, when LePage was governor-elect.

Twenty-eight participants read 90-second statements about how environmental laws have been good for their lives, businesses and health. The speakers included a logger, a doctor, a priest, an leader and several Republican business owner.

Many of the speakers told LePage that Maine's clean environment is essential for those who make their living in the woods and on the ocean.

"Without excellent water quality, 2,000 Maine clammers are out of business," said Chad Coffin, president of the Maine Clammers Association.

Harry Dwyer, a logger from Fayette, said regulations have increased in response to expanded knowledge about development's effect on the environment. He said he welcomes regulations that protect Maine's forests as long as they are enforced fairly.

"I can't work in the woods if there are no woods." he said.

Glen Libby, a groundfisherman from Port Clyde, said fishing regulations are working and overfished groundfish populations have rebounded as a result.

"Stay the course on fishing regulations. We are not blaming anyone anymore, and we have stopped complaining," Libby said.

Jeff Reardon of Manchester made a case for Maine's brook trout and the thousands of fishermen who descend on the state each year in pursuit of the cold-water-loving sportfish.

"This is the epicenter for brook trout in the lower 48," said Reardon, Maine brook trout project director for Trout Unlimited.

LePage spent much of the time taking notes.

During a brief speech, he said he supports fishing, farming and forestry; but added that Maine, where the average per capita income is only 80 percent of the national average, also needs economic development.

The governor said he objected to a pesticide rule that prohibits potato farmers from spraying without notifying neighbors 90 days in advance. However, there is actually no such rule, which the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association pointed out to him after the forum.

LePage said Maine's forests should be working forests, and the state needs to protect the deer herd, which is important for hunting. He said would like to protect the Maine brand when it comes to the state's natural resources, because too many lobsters and trees wind up in Canada, where they are processed are resold back to Maine.

LePage said he supports environmental laws that are based on science.

"The regulations we have are good, strong and needed, but we have forgotten to use common sense," he said.

While some in the audience said it felt good to hear about how environmental regulation and economic development are linked, they said they are not sure anyone changed LePage's perspective.

"I am hopeful he heard what we said. Actions will speak louder than words," said Sam Saltonstall of Peak's Island, board president of Maine Interfaith Power and Light.

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