Sally Stockwell is the director of conservation at Maine Audubon. “I hope during the pandemic, people will remember the things that were really important to them: getting outside, being connected to the natural world,” she says. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Wednesday will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, although the usual outdoor gatherings and park clean-ups in Maine won’t take place because of the coronavirus outbreak and the state’s stay-at-home order. But environmental leaders in Maine say the conservation lessons this year will be greater than ever before because the world has taken a giant pause as a result of the pandemic.

Greenhouse gas emissions are down across the world as traffic grinds to a halt and as factories and other industrial producers slow their output. Some scientific studies predict an historic drop in carbon dioxide emissions in 2020.

The Earth Day Network, an international non-profit devoted to the environmental movement, states that climate action is the most pressing topic for the 50th anniversary, because “climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable.”

Many Maine conservation leaders hope the pandemic will lead to an increase in solar energy and electric vehicles.

“Even though there is this pause in carbon emissions, we can’t go back to the way we were, continuing to heat up the planet,” said Lisa Pohlmann, the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s chief executive officer.

Some environmentalists in Maine even say the worldwide pandemic serves as an example of how quickly sickness, disease and death can envelop the world.

Maine Audubon Director of Conservation Sally Stockwell said it is a wake-up call to states, provinces and nations that we need to work together to create a healthier planet. She points to a recent study published in the journal “Nature” by scientists in South Africa, London and the United States who predict that if global warming is not curtailed, we risk “sudden and severe biodiversity losses from climate change” with entire ecosystems – such as forests and coral reefs – collapsing.

But, Stockwell adds, it doesn’t have to happen if the world works together to reduce emissions. A member of the Governor’s Climate Council, Stockwell points to Gov. Janet Mills’ goal as one example: reducing Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.

“I hope during the pandemic, people will remember the things that were really important to them: getting outside, being connected to the natural world, staying close to friends and family, and valuing our health,” Stockwell said. “These things are significantly more visible right now.”

Indeed, many environmental leaders in Maine hope that from this unprecedented time of shutdown and reflection, a healthier world is born.

“I think we’re seeing changes in behavior because of the coronavirus related to how much more connected we feel as a human species in a worldwide sense. And there could be some real benefit that comes out of that,” said Mark McCollough, the endangered species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Maine.

“At some point, before we get back to some semblance of normal, I would like to see people remember how during this simpler time, people spent more time outdoors. Maybe this radical change will shift our focus.”

When social gatherings, sports events and concerts were canceled in March and April, people in Maine went into nature. And many here observed a clear craving for a closer connection to the natural world. In Maine, 10 coastal state parks and numerous town beaches have been closed because of the overcrowding due to large numbers of people flocking to these outdoors venues. Use on Portland Trails’ 70 miles of trails tripled in March, according to Kara Wooldrik, the non-profit’s executive director.

“The amount of pain and suffering right now and that will continue is unimaginable,” Wooldrik said of the pandemic. “And at the same time, there are glimpses of beautiful humanity happening in nature, “It seems like right now, whether or not it was spring, people are taking time to tap into that.”

Many in Maine’s outdoor community hope that just as there has been an unprecedented pause – there also will be an equally tremendous shift toward greater collaboration between states, nations and neighbors all working for a cleaner environment and a safer world.

Kate Dempsey, the Maine state director of The Nature Conservancy, said the volunteer work she’s observed in her community in Bath and across the state at this time has been powerful.

“Right now we are seeing community leadership of all types – and they’re all part of the solution,” Dempsey said. “My hope this Earth Day is that we are inspired by these signs of people working together more.”

Kristen Lamb, the director of the Center for Wildlife in York, said the increased viewers of the wildlife rehabilitation center’s YouTube channel suggests to her that people “are having this great remembering that we need nature and that it’s directly tied to our physical and emotional well being.” Lamb hopes businesses will continue to let their work force telecommute – to lower carbon emissions.

“There may be some innovation and savvy approaches to business that come out of this,” she said.

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