Good things are happening on two controversial and important environmental issues before the Maine Legislature this session. One concerns waterfowl nesting habitat; the other is all about governance of the North Woods by the Land Use Regulation Commission.

When we last left the controversy about the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), both sides were hurling angry charges. Environmentalists charged that a legislatively created study committee was stacked in favor of the governor’s proposal to eliminate LURC, which is the planning and governing body for 10 million acres of unorganized territories.

The Maine League of Conservation Voters felt so strongly that it cited support for the bill creating the study group as a key “wrong vote” in its 2010 year-end legislative rank card.

Catherine Carroll, then LURC’s director, fought back, telling Tom Bell at the Maine Sunday Telegram, “I welcome and embrace the assault on this agency.”

Carroll recently left her LURC position for a planning job in the Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Gov. Paul LePage didn’t help defuse the tension. On the same day he announced appointments for the study group charged with recommending reforms for LURC, reporter Susan Cover in the Kennebec Journal quoted the governor as saying that LURC “will not be in the hands of the state. It’s going to go back likely to the counties.”

Well, they were all wrong. Some outstanding people — led by Commissioner Bill Beardsley of the Department of Conservation — were selected for this tough assignment.

Many understood that turning over planning and regulatory authority for half of the state and the nation’s largest contiguous forest east of the Mississippi River to counties that lack the staff, experience and vision to tackle this job would be a serious mistake.

The study group did not recommend that LURC be eliminated, or that its major responsibilities be given to counties. Instead, a thoughtful set of recommendations was adopted, only two of which are drawing serious concern.

Those two would give counties that include unorganized territories the option of opting out of LURC’s jurisdiction, and allow county commissioners to appoint LURC commissioners without any oversight or approval process.

Initially, I expected the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee to strike or modify both of these provisions and endorse the other recommendations.

I believed the committee would give county commissioners the right to nominate LURC commissioners, but those nominees would have to be confirmed by the Maine Senate. The opt-out option, I thought, would keep alive the controversy and disarray swirling around LURC for years to come. It’s a bad idea.

Unfortunately, the committee broke down in an ugly partisan fight about this issue last week, just minutes after hearing Beardsley’s presentation of the recommendations. I’m hoping, however, they’ll quickly get back on track. That would be good news for all of us who love and value the North Woods.

The Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed new waterfowl rules also appear to be positioned for positive action by the Legislature, now that the Board of Environmental Protection voted — unanimously — to strengthen those rules.

The rules would allow development adjacent to waterfowl nesting habitat through an easy permit-by-rule system. The Board of Environmental Protection, however, increased the minimum setback for that habitat from 100 to 150 feet, and prohibited construction and clearing of a site between April 15 and July 31 when nesting takes place.

Steve Walker, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, advocated for these changes. DEP Commissioner Patty Aho told Maine Public Radio’s Susan Sharon, “This is an example where having a deliberative process works. All of the comments were reviewed to make sure that what is being proposed for a provisionally adopted rule is probably a good rule going forward.”

And the sharpest critic of the original rule proposal, Nick Bennett of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, seemed to agree with Aho. Bennett told Bangor Daily News reporter Kevin Miller, “We are pleased that the board really listened to the science supporting larger buffers.”

Bennett, an avid duck hunter, has a passion for this issue and has repeatedly and effectively kept in the forefront the importance of waterfowl nesting habit to Maine’s hunting, fishing, trapping and wildlife watching economy.

While there is sure to be plenty of controversy this year in Augusta, it’s good to know that two of the key environmental issues may be resolved in a cooperative manner.

All that’s needed now is for the Legislature to recognize the good collaborative processes that led to the LURC and waterfowl habitat recommendations, and act accordingly.

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

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