May 25, 2011

GEORGE SMITH: Lawmakers work together to craft good changes to vernal pool law

George Smith

If they could, frogs and salamanders would be applauding the leadership of Sen. Tom Saviello and the bipartisan work of his legislative committee.

The Republican senator who represents portions of Kennebec and Franklin counties led the Environment and Natural Resources Committee to a remarkable finish on a host of contentious issues including vernal pools, better known as home to the frogs and salamanders of Maine.

Vernal pools are small forested wetlands whose depressions fill with water from spring snowmelt and rain and dry partly or completely by late summer. With a rich food base and no fish, these pools provide critical habitat for more than 500 species, mostly amphibians and aquatic invertebrates.

Special rules were adopted in 2006 to protect only the vernal pools judged to be "significant." Most vernal pools are not significant and remain unprotected. Of the nearly 1,200 vernal pools reviewed to date statewide, only 230 (19 percent) were considered to be significant.

Nevertheless, landowners and developers saw these rules as an infringement and burden, and they led a major assault on them with the support of Gov. Paul LePage, who proposed two significant changes in law. The governor wanted to amend the Natural Resource Protection Act to reduce the setback for shorebird feeding and roosting area and waterfowl wading habitat to 75 feet. He also proposed a reduction in the setback requirements related to vernal pools.

Environmentalists answered that call with a declaration of war, and the battle was joined.

It was ugly and divisive, with lots of passion on both sides. Caught in the middle was Saviello and his committee of 13. While the end result is a good one, the way we got there is most worthy of examination and praise -- as well as a lesson in good legislating.

The amended version of the vernal pool bill that emerged from the committee with an 11-2 vote includes good fixes for the complaints that have been raised about the rules.

A handout provided by the Maine Audubon Society's lobbyist reports that the bill, "is based on good science and makes clear that artificial vernal pools are exempt from regulations, spells out other exemptions for landowners, and maintains critical protections for Maine's most important vernal pools."

The committee came up with an equally good result on the issue of waterfowl and wading bird habitat, allowing more activities in those zones and agreeing to examine other issues next year. That bill won a unanimous committee vote.

Some of those who wanted these laws and rules repealed, or the protective setbacks reduced, are still unhappy. But when I wrote a column about vernal pools in early April, no one could have imagined committee votes of 13-0 and 11-2 on any environmental bill this session. This is remarkable.

So how did we get there?

Much credit goes to Saviello. When the bipartisan work of his committee broke down and the pressure increased to gut the laws, he pulled his Republican committee members back from the brink and crafted amendments that satisfied them as well as the Democratic members of his committee.

When I was called in to a caucus of the committee's Democrats and environmental lobbyists on the next to last day of work on these bills, I thought that all might be lost. Saviello, however, had pulled his committee back together by the next day.

The members of the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee also share the credit for focusing on the important issues, not letting partisanship dominate the discussion, and working together for solutions that all could support.

I was particularly impressed with the work of Democratic Sen. Seth Goodall of Richmond and Rep. Bob Duchesne of Hudson. In their minority position, it would have been easy to just say no. But they chose to work with Saviello to craft good amendments.

Patty Aho, deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, also gets lots of credit. Her performance at the Legislature has been outstanding, working quietly and generally behind the scenes to create solutions to complaints about environmental rules that actually fix problems without wrecking what makes Maine special.

Here's the recipe for their success. Mix a good understanding of the science of the complex issues, an open mind and willingness to listen, a determination to work in a bipartisan manner, respect for all participants, including your adversaries, and a commitment to our natural environment. Wrap it up with a firm hand.

Saviello cooked this one up perfectly. And he didn't have to kill any frogs or salamanders for his stew.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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