AUGUSTA — “Drought is bad for forests.”

That’s the simple mantra George O’Keefe uses to frame up the issue of climate change in his work as Rumford’s first economic development director. For him, recent periods of reduced rainfall are a harbinger of potential climate change-induced disaster.

“I talk about climate change in the context of the forest, and drought is the single most serious thing,” O’Keefe said on the sidelines of the Maine Climate Council’s first conference, Communities Leading on Climate, held Friday at the Augusta Civic Center.

As of March, Western Maine was experiencing “persistent and noteworthy below normal stream flow and ground water conditions” due to continuing precipitation deficits, according to the Maine River Flow Advisory Committee.

“The forest generates a significant chunk of our outdoor recreation. It generates our drinking water. It generates wood products. It generates employment. It generates our home where we live,” O’Keefe said. By extension, drought is also a threat to hydroelectric production, significant amounts of which are produced in Rumford and in Lewiston and Auburn.

“We’re helping people see things through a different lens,” which is that “there are changes happening around us, and there are risks and opportunities associated with those,” O’Keefe said.


For many officials, organizations and individuals in communities across the state, the focus is not so much on climate change as on the industries, technologies and environmental restoration and infrastructure projects that help reduce shared threats along with rising energy and fuel costs, while generating jobs.

Rumford, Norway and many other towns are installing electric vehicle charging stations to encourage residents to make the switch. Auburn is incentivizing efficiency improvements and heat pumps by matching residents’ Efficiency Maine rebates up to $1,000. Towns are expanding culverts, reviewing zoning policies and assessing infrastructure projects with an eye toward mitigating hazards from extreme weather events.

The cost of many of the projects has been offset or completely covered by federal and state funding. Energy efficient housing units are a cornerstone of Lewiston’s ongoing project to replace 1,400 units of housing with the help of a multi-million dollar federal grant. More such funds are forthcoming from federal and state budgets for transportation, efficiency, energy and infrastructure projects that further greenhouse gas reduction and environmental improvement goals.

Everyone is vulnerable to heavy storms, washed out roads, rising energy and fuel costs, and these commonalities along with practical solutions to the problems are driving action in places where climate change itself may not be a universal concern.

“We have people who love to hunt … and now the moose are dying of ticks,” said Lesley Fernow, who started a community effort to address climate change in Dover-Foxcroft, in comments at the forum. “We have people who love to fish … and the waters are getting warmer and the trout and the salmon are not as plentiful … So we don’t even have to actually use the term climate change. All we have to do is say, ‘We want to do something about this.’”

While it may be easy to buy-in on the message of mitigating hazards when there are grants to be had and projects make economic sense, what about when addressing climate change requires sacrifice?

Kittery is considering revising land use ordinances along the coast to further restrict coastal development due to the increased risks of flooding due to climate change, Kendra Amaral, town manager of Kittery, said at the conference.

“That’s going to impact people’s property values,” Amaral said. “I’m not certain how that’s going to come out, because the one thing you know not to do is go messing with people’s property rights.

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