Flight plans disrespectful to Western Maine

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Western Maine’s unspoiled environment is easy to admire, but challenging to live in, especially in tough economic times. Still, this rugged landscape has inspired self-sufficient entrepreneurship for over two centuries. Today’s fast-paced world appreciates a sport-filled landscape, scenically worthy of university sabbaticals. Residents know our economy depends on our ecology.

When low-level, military flights were originally proposed here, then-Gov. John McKernan and then-Sen. Bill Cohen were strong opponents. Both called for an Environmental Impact Statement about the flights. McKernan found the proposal “poses an unacceptable threat to Maine’s economic and environmental resources and public health.” Released in 1992, McKernan said the EIS showed “a fundamental disregard for interests of the people of Maine” and strongly recommended the project be scrapped.

In recent years, the Fermata and Brookings reports confirmed the importance of “quality of place.” States succeed with business relocation and job creation when the total environment; physical, cultural, social is welcoming. In 2007, I was amazed to learn the Massachusetts Air National Guard wanted to lower its training altitude from 7,000 to 500 feet over an area stretching from Coos County, N.H. across Oxford, Franklin and Somerset counties in Maine. Over 2.5 million acres are affected, including state parks, a wildlife refuge, the Appalachian Trail’s northern end and properties in the Penobscot Nation.

I can remember earlier military flight training here and the effect was terrifying. The jets are silent on approach. You don’t know they’re right over you until your head cracks open. A pilot, in a light plane, could lose control when a screaming jet breaks the sound barrier. I’m sure it’s effective in war, but like most transplants I made a substantial financial sacrifice to live here and I came for peace and quiet.

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In 2007, I joined a group of concerned citizens over this issue. We called ourselves Western Maine Matters because there was something distinctly second class about the return of a bad idea with absolutely no acknowledgment the issue had already been decided. In 2008, as the economy collapsed, a hastily assembled Environmental Assessment concluded military flights would have “no significant impact.”

In a bipartisan response, Gov. John Baldacci and Maine’s congressional delegation expressed collective concern about lowering military training ceilings in a critical, bird migration region, heavily dependent on tourism and outdoor recreation.

When the Air National Guard agreed to conduct an EIS, Western Maine Matters put its faith in a process that dismissed this idea 17 years ago. Our disappointment couldn’t be greater. The draft EIS contains little more than the previous assessment and nowhere does it address why we’re revisiting a previously decided issue without new information. Where does the Air National Guard in Maine and Massachusetts train now? 

As WMM prepared for a public hearing, information about its time, date, location was changeable and difficult to obtain, when it should have been consistent and readily available.

WMM wasn’t alone in its disappointment. In reviewing the draft EIS, Gov. Baldacci didn’t feel the Air National Guard had met their burden of proof and requested the hearing be postponed to “conduct a more thorough analysis of environmental impact to this region.” After a brief postponement, another public hearing was scheduled.

It will be held on Nov. 14 in the Lincoln Auditorium at the University of Maine at Farmington, from 3 to 6 p.m.

Despite the governor’s objections and an incomplete review process, WMM has received reports of low military flights, at varying altitudes, in different locations, across Western Maine. We’ve received no information about the substance or purpose of these flights. 

Where are studies on the impact of extreme noise pollution on animal habitat? Tourism and outdoor recreation? Property values? Job growth from business relocation? Why weren’t already approved, alternative locations or new generation flight simulators explored? WMM has no wish to hamper national defense. As residents, we raise legitimate questions. 

All of it brings me to one word: respect. Lacking at every stage of this process has been respect for the people who call this region home and whose ability to survive, economically, is in the balance. Western Maine should matter.

Toni Seger is a writer who lives in Lovell. For more information, visit westernmainematters.org. 

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