Conference takes on Maine’s mountains
RANGELEY – In the spring of 1972, a group of state policymakers, environmentalists and scientists gathered in Augusta to talk about the future of Maine’s mountains.
Their assessment: Maine’s high peaks, although still relatively wild, needed more protection in the face of increasing pressure from developers, outdoor-recreation seekers and natural resource-based industries.
On Friday and Saturday, more than 200 people resurrected the Maine Mountain Conference 34 years later during a gathering at Saddleback Mountain. Despite the fact that more than three decades have passed, many of the themes, as well as the sense of urgency, were the same.
Sponsored by a dozen environmental and conservation groups, the 2006 Maine Mountain Conference examined long-standing issues such as housing development on ecologically fragile mountain slopes and acid rain, as well as more modern issues such as wind power.
Researchers from universities throughout New England also talked about the unique biological traits of plants and animals that survive in Maine’s often unforgiving and nutrient-poor mountain environments and the new threats they face.
Richard Fecteau, one of the conference organizers and chairman of event sponsor Friends of Bigelow, said he was amazed when reading the transcripts of the 1972 conference that so many of the concerns are still relevant today.
While progress has been made on some fronts, Fecteau said the state’s policies on mountainous areas are much weaker than those for coastal areas and wetlands.
“We decided to do this again because we wanted to remind the policymakers of this state that the mountains are important,” Fecteau said.
The first conference helped shape debate and policy on mountainous areas. New technology combined with shifting public attitudes toward the natural world meant the state’s formerly inaccessible mountains faced many of the same development pressures that transformed Maine’s coast, according to event transcripts.
“This conference is a welcome and timely one for it is useful to spotlight a potential problem before it reaches crisis proportions,” the late Elmer Violette, a state senator and chairman of the Land Use Regulation Commission, told the 1972 conferees in his opening remarks. “We should act now regarding the mountains, while we still have the time to make rational decisions about their future use.”
This time around, it was former legislator and historian Neil Rolde who delivered the keynote address. Rolde, who has written extensively on Maine’s North Woods, reminded audience members about the fledgling state of Maine’s environmental movement back in 1972.
But Rolde warned conference attendees about a “counterrevolution” in politics taking place nationally that threatens environmental gains. He urged the crowd to be vigilant.
Several conference participants called on LURC to update and strengthen the rules designating areas above 2,700 feet in elevation as part of the state’s mountain protection zone.
Participants debated a proposal to erect 30 wind turbines on mountain ridges not far from the Saddleback Mountain ski resort where the conference was held. The wind project, which is pending before LURC, has sharply divided Maine’s environmental community.
Other speakers talked about the need for a more cohesive “vision” for Maine’s mountains to boost the region’s tourism while protecting nature.
Unity College professor Christopher Beach suggested that Maine learn from the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park in New York. The state-owned park contains 90 percent of the East Coast’s designated “wilderness,” yet it features Lake Placid and other vibrant towns, hunting, logging and other traditional uses. The park also celebrates different cultures.
Beach said the Adirondack model offers an alternative to the Maine Woods national park proposal that generates so much controversy.
Beach also recommended Mainers find a brand name for the state’s mountains to help with marketing. He said Maine’s mountains lack the instant name recognition of the Adirondacks, the Poconos and the Great Smoky Mountains.
Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Bangor-based Forest Society of Maine, talked about the trends and challenges of large-scale land conservation in Maine. He said afterward that he believes Maine needs to invest about $200 million in the Land for Maine’s Future program over a decade.
“I hope [the conference] leads to this group really getting behind the push for a land bond,” Hutchinson said.