Maine is one of the birthplaces of the environmental movement, and, under Gov. Janet Mills and a Democratic Legislature, the state is rightly re-asserting its primacy in this all-important field of political, social and scientific endeavor.

In its last session, the Legislature passed a series of laws comprising an ambitious program designed to promote recycling, alternative energy use, and energy efficiency, and to dramatically reduce carbon pollution in the atmosphere, “forever” chemicals in the soil and food supply, and plastics in the ocean. They will take effect on Earth Day, April 22, 2020.

This legislative program represents a refreshing change after eight years of Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s strenuous efforts to curb wind power, solar power and recycling, rezone 10 million acres of northern Maine for development, dismantle the conservationist Land for Maine’s Future Program, and prevent federal designation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

It’s also a much needed counterweight to Washington, where an avowedly anti-environmental, pro-mining and pro-drilling Trump administration has appointed fossil-fuel industry lobbyists and lawyers to key regulatory posts, withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, and issued executive orders rolling back environmental rules issued during the Obama administration.

To be clear, however, this isn’t Maine’s first environmental rodeo. Rather it represents a return to a tradition that stretches back over a century.

President Theodore Roosevelt, the most ardent outdoorsman and conservationist ever to occupy the White House, developed a passion for the wilderness as a young man, embarking on four trips to Maine between 1872 and 1880 and coming under the tutelage of Maine guide William Sewell of Island Falls.

Rachel Carson, a biologist whose 1962 book Silent Spring has been widely credited with giving birth to the modern environmental movement, summered at her cottage at Southport on the Maine coast from 1953 until 1963, where she wrote and explored the rich diversity of life along its rocky beaches and tidal pools. In Silent Spring, she called attention to evidence that the pesticide DDT was endangering wildlife (especially birds), farm animals, domestic pets and even people and argued that the widespread use of such powerful chemicals without any investigation of their potential harm to the biome was irresponsible.

U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine turned an obscure Senate subcommittee into a platform for national legislation to clean up the nation’s atmosphere and waterways, steering the 1970 Clean Air Act (limiting automotive tail pipe and industrial smoke stack emissions) and 1972 Clean Water Act (regulating pollutants discharged into federal and state waters) through Congress.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection was established in 1972, and over succeeding decades the state has enacted laws to protect land, air and water quality that often surpassed federal standards.

Maine has the highest percentage of forest land of any state in the U.S. (about 90%), and its economy relies heavily on outdoor recreational tourism. In response to this and perhaps in reaction to the environmental damage done in the 19th and much of the 20th century to its woods, waters and wildlife by clearcutting, chemical and sewage effluents, dam building, and over-hunting and fishing, the state has embraced the environmental movement as a way to preserve its economy and quality of life.

The modern environmental movement is far more advanced in its thinking than that of Teddy Roosevelt’s day. The conservationists of an earlier period wished to preserve the wilderness as a place to test one’s manhood against the raw forces of nature, as a resource to be managed for future human exploitation, and as a source of spiritual inspiration.

Today’s environmentalists emphasize the complex relationships between, and interdependence of, all forms of life and see humankind as creating an existential threat to its own existence by destroying the very biological foundation on which it rests. They consider people as akin to the T-Rex, sitting atop the food chain of their geological era but as much at risk of rapid extinction from climate change as the king of dinosaurs was 66 million years ago.

Whether environmentalism is viewed as a way of improving quality of life or of preserving humans as a species, it’s a winning strategy — one which Maine has innovatively helped to craft in the past and should passionately pursue in the future.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]