The environment is not the enemy. Decades ago, we put that charge to rest, finally understanding that we can have both “pickerel and payrolls.”
Today, most Mainers understand that our environment is our economy. From tourism to trees, the exceptional natural environment and resources that define Maine and our quality of life generate most of our jobs.
Knowing this to be true, it’s hard to accept the ugly, divisive, all-out war at the Capitol over the laws and rules that protect and enhance our environment and the wildlife that depends on that environment. The bloodiest battles are over a bunch of bills that would diminish the protection of wildlife habitat.
Let’s focus today on vernal pools and several bills that would significantly change the laws that protect them.
For help, I turned to Phillip deMaynadier, the reptile, amphibian and invertebrate group leader at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
I have great confidence in deMaynadier, and not just because he is an avid deer hunter and sportsman. In February, deMaynadier published an excellent briefing paper about vernal pools called “Milestones and Misconceptions.”
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. Many rare and endangered species depend on vernal pools.
Special rules were adopted in 2006 to protect only the vernal pools judged to be “significant.”
Scientists use several criteria to make this determination, including the presence of key species.
Most vernal pools are not significant and remain unprotected. Of the nearly 1,200 vernal pools reviewed to date statewide, only 230 (19 percent) are considered significant.
State agencies won’t be poking around your back 40 looking for vernal pools without your permission. DeMaynadier won’t even accept information about vernal pools from the public unless the person submitting the information provides a letter of permission and support from the landowner.
Forest management activities, including associated road construction, are exempt from regulation in or near significant vernal pools.
Development activities that maintain 75 percent of the forest canopy within 250 feet of significant vernal pools get a quick and easy permit.
Of the 465 more rigorous full-process permits issued by the Department of Environmental Protection in 2010 for all natural resource issues from wetlands to sand dunes, only four involved significant vernal pools.
Since the implementation of vernal pool protections in 2007, the DEP hasn’t denied a single permit for a proposal involving significant pools.
DeMaynadier says the 250-foot zone around significant vernal pools is critical to the viability of pool-breeding wildlife, and I believe him. Some critters actually need 400 feet.
So it’s hard to find anything good about bills that would reduce that zone to 75 feet, and eliminate it altogether if the vernal pool is not on your property.
But then there’s the rest of the story.
As the owner of a 150-acre woodlot, I am aware of the frustrations of many landowners caused by confusing and overly stringent rules, inconsistent enforcement, an antagonistic bureaucracy, and complex permitting processes.
I am expected to protect all sorts of habitat for free, welcome recreationists onto my property without charge, and limit my own activities on my own land in ways that often make no sense to me and sometimes infuriate me.
The state won’t even let me hunt on my own property on Sundays, but doesn’t hesitate to tell me that I must protect deeryards, wetlands and vernal pools. I watch beaver cut valuable trees along the stream, but I can’t cut them myself.
If someone messes up my land, I am liable for the environmental damage and required to clean it up at my own expense.
And other people treat my land like a dump. I constantly have to pick up the trash they leave there.
I am not feeling the respect; and this legislative session, I am gosh-darned going to do something about it. Oops! Please forgive my landowner’s rant and rave. Perhaps it gives you more insight into the problem here, and the reason this has turned into a war.
We can make things better, especially for landowners.
Streamlined permitting processes, a change in attitude by regulators, more respect from the public for what we provide — those are the things I hope are still standing on the battlefield when this war is over.
And let’s hope our most vulnerable creatures are still there, too.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmith [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.