Photo by: Steve Horne

Environmental Elitists Threaten Maine's Historic Backcountry

Part three of a three-part series
By Rep. David Trahan

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

One of the unique cultural and historic features of the Maine outdoors has been the diverse selection of recreational activities. Fishing, hunting, hiking, kayaking – you name it and we take it for granted we can do it in the Pine Tree State. But heed this warning: times are changing – fast.

As the nation's city dwellers seek a simpler, more rustic break from their concrete canyons, they look longingly at places still unspoiled. They crave inspiring views, solitude and a connection to the natural environment. That place is quickly becoming the Maine backcountry.

A banker from New York who wants to see the Allagash designated as “backcountry” or “wilderness” has virtually no power on his own. But it's a different story when he belongs to a powerful environmental group with well-connected lobbyists at the State House. If that environmental group teams up with 25 similar groups to serve on a committee sanctioned by the governor and the Department of Conservation, you then have a powerful force to promote your own vision of Maine's landscape.

One might suggest that the new “Backcountry Project” under the Department of Conservation is just part of the changing times. I would strenuously disagree.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) created a secret, like-minded group of environmental “stakeholders” to identify special places throughout the state for purchase and protection as primitive wilderness recreational areas. One-third of this group, as well as funding for the project, came from out of state.

The DOC used their resources in the form of staff and facilities to lead meetings and implement the plan. Only individuals that supported the plan were invited to attend. Meetings were not publicly advertised. Indeed, the very existence of the committee was not brought to the attention of the Legislature or the Committee on Agriculture Conservation and Forestry until Rep. Rod Carr, of Lincoln, and I forced the issue.

All of these actions are disturbing, as they work against the accepted process of open, advertised public meetings and thorough public debate. But the new direction the Baldacci administration wants to take this state in as it relates to the Land for Maine's Future (LMF) program is chilling.

For eight years, Gov. Angus King promoted the value and vision of investing taxpayer-backed bonds for the purchase and protection of Maine's special places. The mission of this program was declared in statute by the Legislature, as follows: “The Legislature declares that the future social and economic well-being of the citizens of this state depends upon maintaining the quality and availability of natural areas for recreation, hunting and fishing, conservation, wildlife habitat, vital ecological functions and scenic beauty and that the State, as the public trustee, has a responsibility and a duty to pursue an aggressive and coordinated policy to assure that this Maine heritage is passed on to future generations.”

In reinforcing the Legislature's commitment to traditional uses, the statute continues: “When acquiring land or interest in land, the board shall examine public vehicular access rights to the land and, whenever possible and appropriate, acquire guaranteed public vehicular access as part of the acquisition.”

Clearly, a new backcountry land use designation that excludes long-standing traditional and cultural uses like snowmobiling, hunting and forestry and replaces these activities with primitive camping and hiking violates the intent of the LMF Program as it was created.

The Legislature allowed for the designation of ecological reserves for specific high-value habitat to meet the specific need of special protection, but has repeatedly rejected designating areas “off limits” for the benefit of special land use groups at the expense of others. When the Legislature starts down that road, it will be the end of the LMF program. If this happens, we might as well rename it the Program for the Rich and Politically Connected.

Strikingly absent from all the pertinent literature is the impact this new backcountry designation would have on local communities. What would this loss of land do to the tax base of already fragile rural towns and villages? What effect would the new designation have on the constituencies that have traditionally used the backcountry land? Where would they go if they are banned from the land?

As the election season gears up, it is imperative that Maine citizens understand exactly where their elected officials stand on the Maine Backcountry Project. Governor Baldacci should explain why he chose to promote this drastic change in land use policy and what will happen to this group and its ideas if he is re-elected. He should explain what he plans for future phases of the project. If not, will he continue to make this new backcountry designation a priority of his administration?

There is no way that traditional land use advocates can change the past as it pertains to the backcountry, but they can change the future. To combat the growing national and state pressure to designate Maine's most magnificent natural resources “off limits,” Maine people of like minds must organize. Small outdoor organizations, such as snowmobile and ATV clubs, sportsman's groups and those that share the common goal of using our woods and waters, must ban together. United, they can speak loudly enough to be heard over the power and influence of the organized environmental movement.

Bangor Daily News editor V. Paul Reynolds said it best on Sept. 11, 1981, when he wrote: “Isn't it time that Mainers get involved and stop allowing a small, influential circle of elitists to shape a state's destiny whenever environmental controversies come to the fore? The Maine outdoors is expansive and multi-faceted. There is room enough for all manner of recreational pursuits and diverse beliefs.”