When it comes to protecting the planet and fighting to turn back the ticking clock on climate change, 2017 has not been pretty. In fact, if we listed everything that happened that will likely harm the environment, you’d get depressed. But around Maine in the course of this year, there were many positive actions and events in the world of sustainability.

This is not to downplay the impacts of the United States leaving the Paris Accord, the agreement by pretty much the entire rest of the globe to reduce emissions and fight climate change together. Or what it means to have a person like Scott Pruitt, a lawyer with an extensive history of suing the Environmental Protection Agency to halt federal regulations, heading an agency designed to protect the environment (it’s right there in the name).

But given the bad news rampant in 2017, we wanted to emphasize some tidings of good cheer on Christmas Eve.

OUT OF THE WOODS

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, and Lucas St. Clair look out over the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument in June. The new park survived a federal review of monuments nationwide considered for possible downsizing or expanded logging. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

It was a nail biter of a year for the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. In June, the new U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, charged by the Trump administration with reviewing 27 national monuments designated since 1996, toured the monument. Designated as a national monument in August 2016 by President Barack Obama after years of debate over its future, Katahdin Woods and Waters represents an 87,500-acre gift from the family of Roxanne Quimby, the co-founder of Burt’s Bees. It’s been controversial. Gov. Paul LePage dislikes it intensely; he once dismissed the region the monument is in as Maine’s “mosquito area.”

In August, leaks of a draft report suggested that Zinke would support the brand-new monument, but some speculated that he might push for logging beyond forest management. Earlier this month, with the release of Zinke’s final report, that speculation was put to rest: He supports the monument and no logging will be allowed.

Meanwhile, people visited, 30,000 of them, despite some serious roadblocks to finding the place. (About 72,000 visited nearby Baxter State Park in 2017). The National Park Service said visitors came to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument from 45 states and nine countries.

While the monument’s fate hung in the balance, LePage blocked the manufacturing and installation of Maine Department of Transportation road signs for it along I-95. Presumably, now that Zinke’s recommendations are finalized, work will start on the signs? Nope. Maine Department of Transportation spokesman Ted Talbot said the governor needs to hear from President Trump himself. “We are on hold,” Talbot said. Apparently only the president gets to determine how many road signs should go up and what they will look like. “Are they going to be very large overhead signs?” Talbot said. “We are waiting for a recommendation.”

Okay. Maybe by the time the snow melts or the next governor is elected in less than a year. In the meantime, the National Park Service website can help get you there.

COLLINS SPEAKS OUT ON CLIMATE CHANGE

One Monday in late October, Sen. Susan Collins stood on the Senate floor to speak about a subject that’s become all but forbidden during the Trump administration. Cutting taxes, Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and overhauling the Affordable Care Act have sucked up most of the air in Congress this year, but the Republican from Maine wanted to remind her colleagues about climate change.

Specifically, she spoke on what she called the “astonishing” cost of climate change, outlined in a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the economic impacts of climate change. Collins and Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, had joined forces in 2014 to request the report, which was released Oct. 23. The economic losses associated with the extreme weather events of climate change were expected to exceed $300 billion in 2017 alone. Climate change is a public health and environmental issue, Collins said, but also a looming financial crisis. For everyone.

“From whatever angle you look at this issue, whether it is economic, environmental, our livelihoods or public health, climate change is not discriminating between Democrats or Republicans or Greens or independents,” Collins said in a phone interview last week. “It should be of concern to all of us.”

Reflecting on that day, Collins said she was relieved that this latest GAO report was even released, given the tension around the issue. “It confirms the impact of human activity on global warming, and since the EPA adminstrator (Scott Pruitt) – who I voted against confirming – has raised doubts about that, I was pleased that there was no interference.”

Why isn’t climate change a bipartisan issue?

“At one point when people began focusing on these issues years ago, it was nonpartisan,” Collins said. “There are Republicans who are interested in this issue and recognize the threat that climate change poses to our economy and our way of life. But somewhere, the public debate did change on it, and it has become a more partisan issue.”

She hopes colleagues will pay attention to the GAO report.

“It should be a call to action,” Collins said. “It clearly says that the federal government is not prepared.”

POLLINATORS PLUS ONE

The rusty patched bumblebee is now protected. Photo courtesy of The Xerces Society

A bee native to Maine, the rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) was listed as endangered earlier this year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the very first bumblebee to make that list. It hasn’t been seen in Maine since 2009, but if any if the species are left, they are now protected. Another bumblebee, the yellow banded (Bombus terricola) could be added to the list in 2018.

Given how important pollinator-dependent crops are in the state (think blueberries and apples), protecting and encouraging what’s left is essential.

That’s why United States Department of Agriculture recently designated $80,000 in funding from its Natural Resources Conservation Service to help landowners and farmers in Maine protect pollinator resources. Anyone can apply for funding to help establish, maintain and protect pollinator habitat. That might mean increasing floral diversity or creating nesting opportunities for bees on farms and woodlots. To learn more, contact a local USDA Service Center; Maine has 14, including offices in Augusta, Belfast, Lewiston and Scarborough.

This fall, Maine also got a newly identified wasp species named after the state motto, dirigo (“I lead”). A Brunswick native and former University of Maine student, Hillary Morin Peterson, the subject of this week’s Meet, discovered the new species in Harpswell and named it Ormocerus dirigoius. Wasps are no fun at picnics, but they are nonetheless significant pollinators. Ormocerus dirigoius is a non-stinging wasp, which makes us love it even more.

FARMING THE OCEAN

Sales of mussels grown in Maine aquaculture operations are strong, and demand outstrips supply. A professor at the University of Maine at Machias has won a grant to study large-scale culture of blue mussel seed, which could help increase production. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Maine’s marine fisheries took some hits this year, with fewer baby lobsters to be found, which raises questions about lobstering’s future, and the shrimp fishery closing for the fifth consecutive year, suggesting that Maine shrimp may just be a thing of the past.

But others were busy planting new seeds in those waters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (N.O.A.A.) allocated a grant of $908,015 for research into sustainable processing of aquacultured seaweed and development of new value-added products. A team from the University of Maine School of Food and Agriculture will take the lead on that project.

Another big grant from NOAA went to Brian Beal of the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education (he’s also a professor at the University of Maine at Machias). He was awarded $249,238 to study the large-scale culture of blue mussel seed. While Maine’s mussel farms are doing well, they can’t keep up with demand, and according to the University of Maine, the major factor limiting their expansion is seed production. Beal will evaluate the best ways to both collect and culture mussel seed.

Aquaculture leasing applications are way up in Maine, according to Jon Lewis, who leads the Maine Department of Marine Resources Aquaculture program. “We are seeing a large uptick in applications,” Lewis said. “Primarily in oysters and seaweed, with much of it in Casco Bay.” But there are also applications for growing scallops on a rope or mussels, he said.

The applicants range from coastal land owners who want to experiment with a hobby farm to fishermen trying to diversify. “We’ve got lobstermen looking to supplement income, in case lobstering falls flat,” Lewis said.

FROM THE MOUNTAINS TO THE SEA

The effort to connect Mount Agamenticus in York to the seashore over contiguous parcels of conserved land progressed in 2017. Staff file photo by Karen Beaudoin

The Mount Agamenticus to the Sea Conservative Initiative started in 2002 with a major ambition: connect the mountain to the sea in conservation land. Mount Agamenticus is only 692 feet high, but has views for days, like the kind that inspired the military to put a radar tower atop the summit in 1941, and each year between 40,000 and 60,000 visitors hike to the top.

The goal was not just to create a path as the crow flies, but one that stretched south through forests and marshes, along the York River and to the southernmost parts of Maine. Ten organizations, including the Kittery Land Trust, the York Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife/Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, banded together to pursue the dream of putting 19,000 acres from the mountain in York to Gerrish Island in Kittery into conservation, weaving through parts of six towns along the way.

The groups have been slowly chipping away at that goal for 15 years, and this year, added two important pieces to it. In May, a 90-acre piece of wooded land abutting the York River that had been owned by the family of the late Mary McIntire Davis, an eighth-generation York resident and conservationist, was turned over to the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

Another piece of the puzzle, the 220-acre Fuller Forest in York, was acquired by the York Land Trust earlier this month. It had belonged to the family of the late Marion Fuller Brown, a member of the Maine House of Representatives and one of the founders of the York Land Trust. Her family sold it to the York Land Trust at a considerably reduced rate. This most recent acquisition creates a contiguous block of 1,300 acres in conservation, backing up to the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

“It is really a huge part of that puzzle piece, of this mosaic of land in conservation,” said Doreen MacGillis, the executive director of the York Land Trust.

Together, these acquisitions put the Mount Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Initiative within 5,000 acres of its target. MacGillis said the group is projecting it will cross that finish line in 2032.

Why is this region of hills and forest next to the sea so important? For one thing, MacGillis said, it is the largest undisturbed coastal forest between Acadia National Park and New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. And it’s varied, “It’s where the northern spruce forest meets the southern hardwood forest,” MacGillis said. As such, this coastal forest provides habitat for rare and threatened species, including the Blanding’s and spotted turtles, and the state’s greatest area of biodiversity (100 species of birds can be found along the York River alone).

“The fact that it is still there is quite remarkable,” MacGillis said.

GROUND BREAKING

This fall, Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport took on a new name, Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment, but more important, a new mission, positioning itself as a locus for regenerative agriculture. That’s a new movement with a surprising new twist on fighting climate change, namely treating soils around the globe as carbon sinks to absorb – and trap – the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. Organic material in soil does this naturally, but by building it up with more organic material and employing methods like no-till farming and extensive use of cover crops, proponents of this movement believe they can slow the march of climate change.

What’s Wolfe’s Neck role in all this? The nonprofit is using sensors to measure what’s happening beneath the surface and working with soil gurus to enhance the dirt’s potential. As an observatory for regenerative agriculture, it will experiment with and formulate the kind of dirt-centric recipes that can enhance soil’s power to sequester carbon, and then promote them to other farms and growers.

This is a case of an agricultural organization actively pushing for a solution and acknowledging the problems inherent in agriculture. We talk about cars and air conditioners and all the fossil fuel-burning sources of greenhouse gases, but agriculture has played a big role in changing our climate, as well. Experts debate what percentage of greenhouse gases come from farming, but figures range from 7 percent in the United States to 25 percent worldwide by some estimates. Methane releases from livestock – Wolfe’s Neck has cows, goats and sheep – represent 37 percent of agriculture’s contribution, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

NEW HOPE ON NEW ROOTS

A group of Somali-Bantu farmers who excelled in the farming training program at Cultivating Community took a major leap forward this year with the establishment of their own farm, New Roots Cooperative Farm in Lewiston. Amran Hassan, 9, of Lewiston walks through a field that will become a working farm. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Cultivating Community is Maine’s leader in helping new American farmers, many of whom worked in agriculture in Africa, find pieces of land to farm here in Maine. They work side by side on small plots with other immigrants, sharing an acre or even less, to grow vegetables both for their own use and to sell at farmers markets. It’s been a way to help displaced people get their feet wet farming in Maine, and Cultivating Community has helped train them in Lisbon and the Greater Portland area.

This year, a group of four Somali-Bantu farmers who have been through the farming training program at Cultivating Community and excelled at it, took a major leap forward with the establishment of their own farm, New Roots Cooperative Farm in Lewiston. Cooperative is a key word here; the land they are leasing to own was purchased by Maine Farmland Trust. A third group, Cooperative Development Institute, is also providing guidance and mentorship.

This spring, these farmers who have found a home in Maine planted vegetables and crops on land that was once part of a family-owned dairy farm. They also installed a well, solar panels, a cooler and a wash station; signed up 120 community supported agriculture customers; and brought produce to six farmers markets, two food pantries and an assisted living facility. Next year, they’ll expand to about 11 acres of land in production.

Another positive for 2017? Cultivating Community negotiated to manage and run Falmouth Land Trust’s Hurricane Valley Farm, and plans to dedicate the 62-acre site on Route 100 to sustainable agriculture. Hurricane Valley will be a place for beginning farmers to grow food for their families, raise livestock, cultivate fruit and learn about developing a farm business.

MANY MORE MORNINGS IN MAINE

You may have visited this place, in your imagination. It’s where Sal lived, where she wiggled her tooth, where she clammed, where she helped her mother put up blueberries for the winter. This year, Outer Scott Island, a 6.2-acre island in Penobscot Bay owned by the family of “Blueberries for Sal” and “One Morning in Maine” writer and illustrator Robert McCloskey, was officially given to the Nature Conservancy in Maine.

The donation has been in the works for years; the family gave a conservation easement on the property in 1974. But this year’s action means Outer Scott Island will be part of the conservancy’s network of preserves in Maine. The island is accessible only by boat, and visitors are welcome during the day. There are no services or hiking trails on the island. McCloskey died in 2003, but his daughter Sarah McCloskey said at the announcement of the transfer that he wanted “to make sure that future generations have a chance to enjoy it like our family did.”

Now Mainers with boats will get to sit on its shores, in times of quiet wonder and great joy.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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