Last fall dozens of Maine members of the Sierra Club — a national organization associated in many minds with snowy western mountain peaks — turned out in force to block the widening of the Maine Turnpike. Concerned about air pollution and the destruction of wetlands, club members played an important role in the successful referendum drive, collecting a third of the petition signatures and donating $37,000.
Heretofore, the Sierra Club, which is 100 years old this year, had a low profile in Maine, surfacing as a political voice only once before as an opponent of the proposed Sears Island cargo port. Today, its Maine members are poised to become another environmental force in the state.
Like the Sierra Club, other national and regional environmental organizations are diversifying their agendas, and expanding their dominions into Maine. The reason is not hard to see: As the site of the biggest chunk of unspoiled forests on the East Coast, and the possessor of hundreds of miles of pristine ocean coastline, Maine is looming larger on the maps of environmental activists.
Since 1989, the Wilderness Society, the National Audubon Society and the Conservation Law Foundation have set up advocacy offices with paid staff in Maine. The Sierra Club’s Maine members, who belong to the group’s New England chapter, are hoping to establish an official chapter this year, which would mean funding for staff, said Joan Saxe, a Maine official. In January the group used a grant to open a Portland office staffed by volunteers.
The expansion comes at a time when the recession is nibbling at the edges of budgets and membership rolls of many environmental organizations after a period of rapid growth. Sierra Club members in Maine swelled from about 300 to 2,500 during the ’80s, then dipped to 2,300 in the last year or two, said Saxe. The number of Maine members in the Wilderness Society, the Maine Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Council of Maine has dropped slightly.
The expansion of groups into Maine portends increasing polarization in environmental debates of the 1990s. The groups are fragmented in their strategies, ranging from the conservative Nature Conservancy, which arranges land purchases, to the aggressive Earth First! which surfaced briefly in Maine two years ago at the center of a tree-spiking controversy. They also are stirring organized opposition from land-rights activists and business leaders opposed to stringent regulations.
The proliferation of environmental groups does not end with the big names. Last year the Maine Audubon Society published a three-page list of 54 local groups specializing in everything from nuclear dumps to rain forest preservation.
Some of these groups, brash and aggressive in their NIMBY (not in my back yard) politics, have made a name for themselves at the state level by blocking a regional dump in Township 30 in Washington County, a trash incinerator in Brunswick, and the turnpike expansion, and by skirmishing with the Applied Energy Services Corp. and its effort to build a coal-fired plant in Bucksport.
Are the state’s larger, older environmental groups like Maine Audubon and the Natural Resources Council of Maine about to be replaced by these out-of-state invaders and the grass-roots neighborhood upstarts?
That’s not likely, they say. While they all are competing for members and funds, the groups, new and old, are striving to carve out separate, if overlapping, niches. Officials are prepared to tell you what makes their groups unique. For example:
“We are the only organization in Maine that really bridges the gap between education and advocacy,” said Thomas Urquhart, executive director of the Maine Audubon Society.
“We are the only conservation advocacy organization in Maine that has a full-time presence (office) at the state, regional (Boston) and federal level,” said Jym St. Pierre, director of the Wilderness Society’s Maine Woods Project, which opened an office here in 1989.
One of the groups with a new Maine office, the Conservation Law Foundation, specializes in legal maneuvering, and has made ocean ground-fish stocks a major priority. Another group relatively new to the state and growing, the Greens, is really a political party with a thick environmental plank and strong grass-roots orientation that has spawned nine autonomous chapters and a candidate for the 2nd Congressional seat.
The groups occupy the full ideological spectrum illustrating how politically fragmented the environmental movement has become.
“The problem with the older established groups is that they have a tendency to be dominated by an elite,” said Nancy Allen of the Hancock County Greens, which has grown in visibility recently because of its fight against AES. The Greens represent “the little guy,” said Allen.
The people in the established groups don’t mind being called compromisers. “Let’s face it. We deal in reality and from time to time that means compromising. That’s how you get something done,” said Bill Hancock of Maine Audubon.
The Wilderness Society’s St. Pierre has walked a fine line between aggressive advocacy and what some people believe is political insensitivity since his organization burst on the scene in 1989 with a spectacular proposal to create a huge Maine Forest Reserve around Baxter State Park.
His group has been “more aggressive, and (established groups like Natural Resources Council) have been more conservative” in the debate over how to protect forest lands, said St. Pierre. He frequently points out in newspaper columns that he’s a Maine native.
At the same time, he is careful to disassociate his group from radical organizations such as Earth First! The Wilderness Society plan is strictly voluntary, and most of the work is done “in three-piece suits. It’s all within the system.”
Commitment to solving complex issues over a long period of time is an issue raised by the state’s older environmental groups. The Natural Resouces Council offers a vision of the future beyond NIMBYism, said Judy Berk of NRCM. That vision is embodied in the legislation it drafts including the transportation policy passed in the referendum on the turnpike last fall, and the new energy policy it has been promoting for three years to force state utility regulators to take into account the cost of pollution when approving power sources.