AUGUSTA – Citizens concerned with the fate of Maine’s natural heritage gathered in Augusta today to urge their legislators to protect Maine’s North Woods and vote against legislation that would undermine Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC). Environment Maine, a statewide environmental advocacy organization, collected the 17,000 messages from every state legislative district and hosted the event at the State House for citizens to deliver the messages to their legislators in the Maine House of Representatives.
“17,000 people from all across Maine are asking legislators to do one thing: reject rollbacks to 40 years of protections for the North Woods. These rollbacks threaten to destroy the North Woods as we know it, and once they’re gone, they’re lost forever,” said Alexandra Fields, Preservation Associate at Environment Maine.
The messages were delivered as the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry considers a bill that would weaken these protections by greatly diminishing the scope and power of LURC, the agency that oversees land use and planning for the North Woods.
The bill, LD 1798, was written by the LePage administration based on the recommendations of the LURC Reform Commission, the task force created by the Legislature last session to decide the future of LURC, which was created with strong bipartisan support in 1971 to guide development and protect the character of Maine’s North Woods. The majority of task force members, who were appointed by Governor Paul LePage, Senate President Kevin Raye, and House Speaker Robert Nutting, had publicly testified in favor of abolishing LURC before their meetings began.
“There are certainly parts of the task force’s report that are positive and will greatly improve the LURC experience for citizens of the UT,” said Representative Russell Black (R-Wilton). “However, allowing counties to drop out of LURC’s protections would undermine the whole process, eliminating any incentive for counties to buy into the reforms and effectively destroying LURC over time.”
Several additional aspects of the bill are of particular concern to those who want to see the North Woods protected. The bill would remove the requirement that developers demonstrate that there is need for their project in order to gain approval, eliminating the only opportunity that the local community has to provide input on proposed projects. Additionally, it would divvy up permitting, planning, and prospective zoning among different state and local bodies and agencies, adding unnecessary work and confusion, while eliminating LURC as the “one-stop shop” for these services in the North Woods.
Garrett Conover, a wilderness guide with nearly 30 years of experience leading canoe and snowshoe trips in the North Woods, was concerned about the effects the bill’s rollbacks would have on his industry. “Any rollback of LURC’s oversight would put sugar in the fuel tank of the tourism industry, which is already suffering enough in this tough economy,” said Conover. “A very large and diverse collective of entrepreneurs depend on the maximum wildness of these areas, which is best achieved through consistent and reliable attention to all North Woods details and issues.”
“There’s no question that, as it stands, LD 1798 would roll back protection for our land and waterways,” said Representative Jeff McCabe (D-Skowhegan). He pointed out another major problem with the bill. “Changing the makeup of LURC to allow county commissioners to appoint themselves would reduce oversight and compromise the Commission's ability to make sound land-use decisions due to the inevitable conflict of interest involved.”
“Even my students who are too young to drive know that it has taken many years to write laws that protect the places they treasure,” said Nate Cutting, a teacher at Freeport High School. “All of them want their own children to have the same opportunity to explore and learn in the wilderness.”
“The changes proposed in LD 1798 are ‘solutions’ in search of a problem,” said Jym St. Pierre, Maine Director of RESTORE: The North Woods and former Deputy Director of LURC. “They will not improve Maine’s quality of place or economy. On the contrary, they will put the extraordinary public values in Maine’s wildlands at enormous risk.”
“Some of the most treasured places in Maine lie within those 10 million acres of unbroken forest,” Fields concluded. “Mainers have made their voices heard, and they want to see the North Woods protected now and for future generations. We urge lawmakers to reject the rollbacks in LD 1798 and keep Maine’s North Woods wild.”
Upon the conclusion of the event, constituents delivered their messages to legislators on the House floor. LD 1798 is scheduled for a hearing before the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry next Thursday, February 16 at 1 PM.
Environment Maine is a citizen-based environmental advocacy organization working to preserve Maine’s open spaces, protect clean air and water, and steer the state toward a clean energy future. www.environmentmaine.org