There is gold in Maine’s North Woods. It is the beautiful brook trout.

The hard-fought, long-running battle about mining the North Woods for metals was featured at the Legislature on Monday in a lengthy public hearing about proposed rules that would make it easier to open new mines in Maine.

For me, it’s all about our native brook trout. Despite our neglect, the illegal introduction of competing species, warming water, destruction of habitat, poor protective management, easier access to their waters and other harmful acts, Maine still has nearly all of the nation’s remaining native brookies. We’re lucky.

Just last week, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee took an important step to extend recognition and protection to more of our wild brook trout waters. That particular step, a significant one, has taken eight years.

In 2005, Maine recognized native brook trout as our state’s Heritage Fish and protected them in waters that have never been stocked. The new recognition extends that protection to waters that haven’t been stocked in at least 25 years.

A few years ago, I wrote a column for the Maine Invites You guide for travelers, published by the Maine Tourism Association. Here are three sentences from that column: “The 14-inch wild native brook trout took the first dry fly offered when I arrived at my favorite pool about a mile from the road in this cold, free-flowing North Woods stream. The trout’s stunning spawning colors erased any doubt that there is a God. In recent years, Maine has stepped up protection of its native brookies, important when you understand that this state has 97 percent of all the remaining native book trout in the United States.”

Trout bring tourists to Maine — with their fly rods.

I don’t know a lot about mining, but what I do know — and have seen firsthand in the western states — is that it’s not good. And what I know about Maine’s proposed mining rules is that they’re not good, either.

I visited an abandoned mine in Maine last year for an interesting tour. I was surprised to see water running right out of the mouth of the mine, carrying who knows what metals down the mountain and into a nearby pond.

Yes, much of this fight is about water, below and above ground, and the critters, including ourselves, who depend on it.

This isn’t really about mines and metals, because a piece of rock can’t compare to a beautiful living thing like a brook trout … can it? And if it is all about metals, then what does that say about our values?

This is about vision: When you think about the North Woods, do you really see a mine? This is about understanding — understanding what we did right, what we did wrong, what we lost, what we have now, what we can regain, what we can deliver to our children and grandchildren and the future.

Yes, Maine’s brook trout are a national treasure, worthy of protection everywhere they still exist, far more valuable than any metals that might be extracted from the North Woods.

Shame on us if we get this wrong.

I have heard the argument that we use these metals in a lot of products, and those metals are mined by kids in countries that are destroying their environment. Is that really a good argument for mining in Maine?

When legislators vote on this critically important issue, I hope and pray that their vision includes the brook trout.

There is gold in Maine’s North Woods. Let’s make sure it is always there.

• • •

Brook trout and other Maine native species are threatened by more than mining. Climate change could change everything for them. Brook trout, for example, depend on cold water, and the warming climate is a real threat to them.

From 9 a.m.-5 p.m. March 12 at the Augusta Civic Center, the Climate Solutions Expo and Summit brings us together to learn about exciting initiatives to address climate change problems and explore solutions that will require the participation and support all of us.

The Expo is free and open to the public, with lots of interesting exhibits and presentations about a host of issues from renewable energy to fisheries and farming.

More information can be obtained at climatesolutionsme.org or by calling 622-5330.

We won’t catch any brook trout that day, but maybe we’ll figure out how to save them in the future.

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