The rejection of the Redington and Black Nubble projects reveals Maine’s culture of opposition is strong, and dangerous

Late last month, Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission made a decision that surprised a lot of folks.

Commissioners voted 6-1 to reject its own staff recommendation to approve rezoning about 1,000 acres to build a 90-megawatt wind farm on two Western Maine mountains. The vote was a major setback for those who believe the country must embark on a serious program of energy conservation while pursuing the development of indigenous, alternative fuels. Wind power is one of those alternatives, as is biomass.

Yet almost every one of these projects has run into a buzzsaw of opposition from a variety of sources. It seems there isn’t a project proposed in the state today – whether it’s a residential subdivision, a group home, an energy or industrial facility, a bottled water plant, a development in the North Woods, or a piece of public infrastructure – that doesn’t become the target of neighborhood protest or the focus of some group’s latest fund-raising campaign.

Here in Maine we have institutionalized a culture of opposition at the expense of creating a society of opportunity. We have reached a point where people believe they have a right to object to anything they don’t like anywhere near them; and they’ve come to define ‘near’ as including the whole state of Maine.

But not everyone has the same responsibility to make this state work. By that, I mean local organizing and vociferous opposition is not the same as developing public policies that generate the tax dollars necessary to provide the services a relatively poor state like Maine requires, or to make our government and communities function well.

In December 2005, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s newly created “New England Public Policy Center” held a conference on energy policy. Henry Lee, the director of the environment and natural resources program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, argued public officials have given too much weight to local opposition and not enough to the regional and statewide benefits of new facilities.

“This ‘there should never be a loser’ concept is not going to work if we are ever going to get these facilities sited,” Lee said.

No, he wasn’t being hard-hearted. He was being realistic. The stakes for America today are enormous, particularly so since 9/11. It is sheer insanity to continue funneling billions of dollars annually to some of the most repressive regimes in the world because we can not – or will not – wean ourselves off our petroleum dependency.

That’s one face of institutionalized opposition – on the energy front. There is another, and it can be seen in the marriage of ideology and money, especially over issues of conservation and development in Maine’s North Woods and the role that fund-raising – much of it from out-of-state donors – plays in shaping public policy in Maine.

I can recall few campaigns as vituperative as the one now being waged against Plum Creek’s plans for Moosehead Lake, a campaign replete with expensive television ads and sophisticated direct mail appeals on the part of Plum Creek opponents.

It brings to mind a different environmental battle that took place 10 years ago. The issue then was dioxin, and as a former member of the Board of Environmental Protection, I am familiar with the subject and its complexity. The policy question turned on which control strategy for paper mill discharges into Maine’s rivers was best for the environment: elemental chlorine-free (ECF) or totally chlorine-free (TCF).

When it appeared that a body appointed by Gov. Angus King, the Working Study Group, was not going to endorse the TCF approach, six environmental groups quit the study group process entirely. Their walkout led me to pen the following, which ran in a number of statewide newspapers as part of a broader essay.

Instead of dioxin, I’ve inserted the phrase “Plum Creek:”

“Plum Creek has come to represent an ongoing battle for political relevance within the environmental movement and the public interest sector, and between different organizations within those spheres.

It has become a poster child, an emotional issue around which membership drives focus and organizations prove their worth to staff and board while providing a vehicle for ongoing fund-raising efforts. Of course, it is also about core beliefs.

But now, 25 (now actually 35) years after the birth of the environmental and public interest movements, they, too, in large measure, have become just like every other organization: budgets to meet, members to please, a board to keep satisfied. In short, a need to maintain their own institutional momentum just like everyone else.

Except, the media and the public have accorded these groups a level of credibility that shields their actions from the same scrutiny given other players in the public policy arena. The assumption is made that they have no ax to grind, that they’re neutral players acting in the public interest only.

This fits neatly with a well-crafted image that since the groups have no visible economic gain they can’t be operating with anything other than the purest of motives.

The reality is far more complicated than that.”

What was true ten years ago is even truer today.

Here in Maine we have institutionalized the role that opposition plays in the setting of public policy. Yet rarely do we seek to understand the organizational dynamics that underlie so much of this opposition. There is the natural conservative nature of Mainers, which makes us suspicious of, and resistant to, change. There is also the role that newcomers play in seeking to maintain what they value now that they’ve moved here.

Part of the tension is also driven by the economic disparities that often exist between wealthier in-migrants and long time residents.

When it comes to emotionally charged debates over how Maine’s natural beauty and resources can be used to support faltering local economies, we should not be surprised that so much fundraising focuses on parts of the state where the actual development isn’t happening, or in urban northeastern areas where the pitch is all about saving a piece of wilderness in which the benefactor doesn’t happen to live, or need to make, a living.

I don’t raise these points because I have the silver bullet that will solve Maine’s myriad problems, but rather to stimulate a conversation about what happens when opposition, and not opportunity, becomes the prevailing characteristic of our time.

Protecting a precious legacy is important. Being good environmental stewards is equally important. But when opposition shadows almost every form of development, something is seriously out of balance.

Sam Zaitlin is the former mayor of Saco, chair of Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection and chairman of the board of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. He is a member, and past chairman , of the Maine Turnpike Authority. He is a public policy consultant in Saco.

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