Gov. Paul LePage is a master at controlling the tone and direction of debate on issues he decides are our state’s priorities. Whether it is income tax cuts or welfare reform, his style is in tough and take no prisoners. Unfortunately, for elected Republicans and the Land for Maine’s Future Program, this style could very well mean the end of public trust land conservation in Maine. In addition, the crisis he has generated has the potential to label elected Republicans with the legacy of being the party that allowed it to happen.
One of the benefits of being born and raised in Maine is that I have seen 52 years of landscape-wide environmental change. As a child, I remember the last of the great log drives on the Kennebec River and witnessing the last days of the once-great spring run of Atlantic salmon at the Bangor Salmon Pool.
I remember when the North Woods meant big bucks and big woods. Paper and saw mills were the heart and soul of our northern manufacturing economy that included textiles, shoes, canoe building, and tanneries.
Sadly, I watched a natural disaster unfold in the early 1970s when we endured a massive spruce budworm outbreak that devastated our northern Maine fir and spruce forest. I watched naively as the outbreak led to the mechanization of the forest products industry and the subsequent wholesale selloff of paper company lands to land management outfits and wealthy individuals from in and out of the state.
I saw access to wild places that traditional recreationists once took for granted disappear at an alarming rate and watched helplessly as the sites my family once used to camp and fish on the upper Kennebec were bought up by rafting companies and made off limits. Land was subdivided and sold to individuals and so was born the “No Trespassing” signs. Wealthy individuals bought up whole townships, hundreds of thousands of acres at a time, and built elaborate lodges and locked gates closed areas once accessible to the public.
In 1987, visionaries within the Maine Legislature created the Land for Maine’s Future Program in an attempt to address the rapidly changing land ownership trend, protect wildlife habitat and farmland, and guarantee traditional access to undeveloped lands for hunting fishing and outdoor recreation for everyone, including the working class and the poor.
The Land for Maine’s Future program has protected more than 532,000 acres of Maine’s best recreational and natural areas. The program has secured public access to rivers and lakes for fishing and boating, and in 2005, the program was expanded to include funding for commercial marine activities, all with overwhelming public support.
When the governor set in motion his plan to use more than 30 public-approved Land for Maine’s Future projects as a hostage to secure money for his own priorities, he set in motion a series of dominoes that, if allowed to fall, could spell the death of land conservation. LePage has staked his ground: Give him an estimated $3 million to $4 million of the stumpage paid each year from timber harvesting on public lands or he won’t release the 30 projects, the bonds for which voters have approved through referendum.
The only way the governor can achieve his goal is if elected Republicans enable him to do so. Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, has introduced a governor’s bill to make the money transfer from public lands. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, has introduced a bill to override the governor’s authority to hold up bonds. In the political world, this is called a circular firing squad for Republicans.
If no acceptable compromise is found, the dominoes will fall. We should assume the governor will follow through on his threat and no projects will be funded. The state’s credibility with any future land sales will be destroyed, no one in their right mind would enter into a land sale with a state government they can’t trust. It is likely that the respected Land for Maine’s Future board will recognize it no longer has a purpose and its members will resign, leaving no Land for Maine’s Future administrative infrastructure and, as a result, the kiss of death for land conservation in the public trust.
Although Republican legislators did not create this crisis, they are faced with this horrible choice, pass Katz bill and fund the Land for Maine’s Future projects while enraging their party leader or defeat Katz’s bill and destroy the Land for Maine’s Future while establishing the legacy of being the party that enabled the governor to eliminate the most successful public land conservation program in Maine history.
In times like these leaders are tested. Elected Republicans are about to make choices that will determine the fate of decades of sound conservation and make a clear statement about their commitment to the next 50 years. Katz has made a courageous stand. I hope his colleagues do, too.