PORTLAND – Land conservation, energy independence and the future of “traditional” recreation in Maine were hot topics Thursday night during a well-attended gubernatorial debate on environmental issues.
All five of the candidates attending the “Environment 2006” forum said protecting Maine’s natural treasures makes perfect political and economic sense.
Not surprisingly, however, the gubernatorial hopefuls offered sometimes disparate views on some of the most controversial environmental issues facing the state and the nation, such as the recent Katahdin Lake deal, global warming and Plum Creek Timber Co.’s plans for the Moosehead Lake region.
Moderator Susan Sharon of Maine Public Broadcasting Network opened the debate, which was sponsored by several environmental groups, by asking the candidates to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how serious a problem global warming posed for the planet.
Gov. John Baldacci, the Democratic incumbent, as well as independents Barbara Merrill and Phillip Morris NaPier and Green party candidate Pat LaMarche all said climate change is a very serious problem, with most giving it a 10 out of 10.
“We have to go on a diet,” LaMarche told the crowd of roughly 300 people at the Eastland Park Hotel. “We have to conserve.”
Republican candidate Chandler Woodcock gave global warming a 5, however, explaining that Maine can only do so much to affect the worldwide climate situation. Nevertheless, Woodcock said the state and private sector should pursue conservation measures.
The candidates had more starkly different views on last winter’s deal to annex 4,000 acres around Katahdin Lake into Baxter State Park as well as the wider issue of balancing land conservation while preserving “traditional uses” in the North Woods.
Baldacci criticized the Legislature’s Republican leadership for opposing money for the Land for Maine’s Future program, which could have helped fund the land deal his administration helped negotiate.
“It may have been difficult, but the fight was worth it,” Baldacci said of the deal.
But Merrill suggested that the Baldacci administration bore much of the blame for the lack of LMF funding by playing “partisan games” with the budget.
“We should have had the money in LMF to be able to secure enough land next to Katahdin Lake … so that Maine folks can go up there for traditional uses,” said Merrill during one of several pointed rebukes of Baldacci.
Woodcock said he opposed the Katahdin Lake bill in the Legislature because he viewed it as another example of rural residents losing access to land for hunting, snowmobiling and other traditional uses.
LaMarche, meanwhile, said she supported a $100 million bond campaign for land conservation and said she saw nothing wrong with setting aside different areas for motorized and non-mechanized recreation.
On the issue of Plum Creek, LaMarche and Baldacci were skeptical that large-scale development such as the 975 house lots and two resorts that the company is proposing will provide long-term economic stability to the region. NaPier said he was against the Plum Creek plan.
Merrill countered that while she believes Plum Creek’s plan may need to be downsized, Maine’s other resorts such as Sugarloaf/USA show that resorts do provide long-term economic benefits.
Woodcock said any large-scale development needs to be carefully reviewed but that the 400,000-plus acres of permanent conservation in Plum Creek’s plan would benefit Maine.
NaPier provided some of the most unconventional and lighthearted remarks of the night, comparing consumptive human society to “parasites” on a spaceship and even proposing a nickel deposit on cigarette butts similar to the bottle bill to reduce littering.
“We need to do something different, and I’m different,” he said.
Woodcock, who often received the most lukewarm applause from the largely “green” crowd, urged the audience not to stereotype when they enter the voting booth.
“I know what my party affiliation is and so do you, but don’t make assumptions because quite often when a compromise is struck, you may be surprised by who is on your side,” he said.