Despite the growing proliferation of environmental groups in Maine, there are signs that public enthusiasm for regulation is waning because of the recession. At the same time, groups concerned about property rights and the impact of “overregulation” on the economy have formed to fight environmental regulations.
A Becker Institute poll found that in 1989 Mainers placed a much higher priority on environmental protection than on economic growth; when the poll was taken again in 1992 the figures had flip-flopped with many more people giving economic growth the edge.
But the poll’s message was mixed. Those polled were nearly evenly split over whether regulations should be changed to speed up project approval, with the edge going to those opposed to watering down the regulations. The poll was conducted for Fleet Bank, Hannaford Bros. and the Bangor Daily News.
Such polls make environmentalists edgy. “Asking people to choose between the economy and the environment seems to me patently ridiculous,” said Nancy Allen of the Greens of Hancock County, which have opposed a coal-fired power plant in Bucksport. “It is simply not a rational choice to have to choose between your health and your job. … That kind of either-or competition … actively reduces the possibility for creative solution.”
While there were no “huge setbacks” for the environmental movement, Everett Carson, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said he witnessed the “strongest pro-business/anti-environmental lobbying force in Augusta I’ve seen in my eight years.” The result was a “chipping away” at regulations such as those affecting the color and odor of water polluted by mill discharges.
Leaders of groups fighting regulations deny they are anti-environment. “We’re not anti-environment. We’re anti-centralized planning which is what the environmental movement has become,” said Mary Adams. Earlier this month in Garland, she convened the Freedom Fighters, a group of small-town officials concerned about loss of local control, to decry state-mandated growth management planning. On March 16, Garland voters suspended their town’s planning process, joining a growing list of communities.
Another opposition group, the Maine Conservation Rights Institute, is promising it will produce a former Sierra Club leader turned land-rights advocate as the keynote speaker at a conference April 11 in Bangor on the threat to property rights posed by “environmental extremism.”
The institute played an important role in organizing opposition to the Northern Forests Land Council, a regional entity aiming to protect forests in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Despite heavy lobbying by environmental organizations, Sens. George Mitchell and William Cohen withdrew their support for federal authorization of the council this month after Gov. John McKernan indicated he was seeking alternatives to the federal role last November.
The most well-heeled opposition group is the Environmental and Economic Council of Maine, which is collecting a $500,000 war chest to do battle against environmental regulations. The money comes from nearly 200 companies that have paid anywhere from $250 to $20,000 for a membership fee depending on their size, said Mary Nelson, a spokesman.
Maine’s regulatory system has “virtually ignored the needs of a healthy economy,” according to the group’s promotional material. “Overlapping jurisdictions, inconsistencies and redundancies” among government agencies are at the heart of the problem.” The council says it offers “a balancing force to respond to anti-growth activist organizations.”
Among the measures EECOM has worked on are bills to steamline the Department of Environmental Protection’s project approval procedures and a $79 million bond issue to create jobs, said Kay Rand, EECOM lobbyist.
The group also has promoted state funds for state support of voluntary community growth management plans and a bill to allow creation of tax increment financing districts that would enable municipalities to keep a quarter of the sales and income taxes generated by new development over a 10-year period, she said.