Down East 2013 ©
Maine’s next governor will be challenged to wring more money out of our natural resources while protecting critical habitat and our traditional recreational opportunities. That’s one reason I was listening carefully when most of the major candidates showed up for a March 11 forum sponsored by the Natural Resources Network.
The Natural Resources Network is an alliance of organizations whose members depend on Maine’s natural resources for business and recreation. NRN members are the Maine Forest Products Council, Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Maine Potato Board, Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, Maine Aquaculture Association, Maine Dairy Industry Association, Maine Snowmobile Association, Maine Lobsterman’s Association, Wild Blueberry Commission, Maine Trappers Association, Maine Farm Bureau, Maine Professional Guides Association, and Independent Energy Producers Association.
The Maine Forest Products Council hosted the gubernatorial forum and its communications director James Cote served as moderator. Democratic candidates present for the morning session were John Richardson, Rosa Scarcelli, Pat McGowan, and Steve Rowe. Libby Mitchell was absent, presiding over the day’s legislative session as Senate President. Independent Eliot Cutler got his chance to answer the questions at lunch, followed in an afternoon session by Republicans Paul LePage, Bill Beardsley, Matt Jacobson, Les Otten, and Steve Abbott. Absent was Senator Peter Mills, busy at the legislature and Bruce Poliquin.
On Energy Independence:
We hear a lot about making Maine energy independent, and the need to lower costs of electricity and wean ourselves off oil. All of the candidates are focused on this and their plans to achieve these goals have similarities.
Let’s start with the Democrats:
Richardson wants diversification, including biomass, natural gas, wind energy, and methane gas from landfills, integrated into a comprehensive strategy. Scarcelli noted our “extraordinary high cost of electricity” and called for diversification and investment, claiming we “have made a lot of poor choices,” in the past.
McGowan said he’d meet with key leaders in Quebec who are building wind and water projects and need markets for that electricity. He touted wind power. Rowe said three major areas need attention: education, health care costs, and energy production and costs. He said distribution of energy is as big an issue as production.
Cutler sees natural gas as an important ingredient in lowering costs and supports an LNG plant in Maine. He would shift home heating from oil to electricity. His most innovative idea – and it’s really an old one – is to create a public power authority.
The Republican team offered these suggestions:
Otten favors a Maine LNG plant, wants to get out of ISO New England, and hopes to build the port at Searsport. “We say no to everything that can drive down the cost of energy,” he charged, “but we need to be at the front of the renewable energy pipeline. We still have no energy plan.”
Abbott touted hydropower, calling it “important to our future.” He disagreed with Otten about getting out of ISO New England. LePage opposes subsidies for renewable energy projects, including wind, and said he’d put a nuclear plant at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone.
Beardsley wants to repurchase low-head hydro facilities that were sold to CMP, let free markets lower costs, and ax the sales tax on electricity. Jacobson noted that high costs are the principal problem, and the single biggest deterrent to economic expansion. LNG is “very important,” he said, and we must get lower priced energy to the northern part of the state.
The Future of the North Woods:
On this topic, there is a remarkable breadth of opinions. First, all the candidates oppose a North Woods National Park.
Republicans are really down on the Land Use Regulation Commission. All favored major changes, from getting rid of LURC to turning it into a locally-controlled planning agency without regulatory powers. Abbott said, “The biggest threat to our North Woods is public policy.”
Democrats like LURC a whole lot more. Rowe praised the agency, saying he thought their approval of Plum Creek’s Moosehead Plan “was a good thing.”
I was surprised that few candidates embraced, with enthusiasm, the state’s current approach of purchasing conservation easements on large tracts of land.
Scarcelli said “this (forest) industry has been the steward of land for 400 years,” and we should not “push toward conservation that decreases value” of the land or industries that depend on the forest. McGowan said he is “proud to have worked on acquiring 3 million acres” of conservation lands, but there “are some things going on in the North Woods that are not good for Maine.” He didn’t say what those were.
Rowe said he believes in a working forest and is a strong supporter of the purchase of conservation easements. Richardson favors conservation easements but reported that people are concerned that their recreational opportunities on these lands may be lost through easements and he wants to make sure sufficient land is available for recreation.
Cutler called for changes in the way we do easements, citing landowners’ concerns about liability and value. He said resolving these concerns is “centrally important to continuing uses in the north woods.”
Of the Republicans, Beardsley was the only one to embrace easements, citing an Adelphi study he commissioned that changed his negative impressions of them. He now sees easements that purchase public rights, but leave the land in private ownership, as a way to “stop public takeover of private land.”
Abbot is clearly not a fan of easements, citing them as “part of the mix for special areas we want to preserve,” but saying the focus is too much on conservation easements and not enough on private management that provides a better economic return.
Jacobson opposes easements, saying his decisions will be “based on job creation,” and easements don’t do that.
Otten reported, “I kind of want to say enough already,” and expressed concern that development rights are being purchased for prime property that “ought to be developed.”
You could spend days just sorting through these very different reactions to a strategy the state has been following for two decades, but the questions kept coming from Cote.
The Sunday Hunting Debate:
If there has been a more contentious issue between sportsmen and landowners than Sunday hunting, I missed it. As a primary advocate for Sunday hunting, I have plenty of bruises to show how tough this issue has been in the past.
So the amazing thing here for me was that some of the candidates favor Sunday hunting and others are open to the possibility.
McGowan supports it in “pieces of the unorganized territories if there is a fee to help landowners manage it.” Rowe said “that’s something not on the front of my mind. I voted against it in the legislature.” Richardson reported that “as Speaker I supported it and I think we can carve out sections of the state where it is appropriate”. Scarcelli said she “wants to hear more from the constituencies.”
Cutler said he “is not opposed to it.”
Of the Republicans, Jacobson had the most provocative answer, saying, “I can drink a beer on Sunday, why not hunt?” Presumably he was not linking the two activities as a great Sunday combo.
Otten had done his homework on this hot potato, noting, “even SAM’s members are divided on Sunday hunting,” but offering that he is “open to discussion.” Abbott was not open to Sunday hunting, shutting the door “because this depends on landowner relations and it would be a disaster without landowner support.” As a hunter himself, Abbott probably has the best grasp of the complexity of this issue.
Neither LePage nor Beardsley support Sunday hunting, with Beardsley noting that Sundays “are a time for family, faith, and things like this.” Perhaps he’s not aware that families hunt together.
Considering a Consolidation:
Given Governor Baldacci’s stubborn effort to consolidate the state’s natural resource agencies (he’s striking out for the third time on that in this legislative session), I was pleased to find no support for this amongst these candidates. This is very important to those of us who have been advocates for small mission-focused natural resource agencies.
McGowan, a member of Baldacci’s cabinet and commissioner of one of the natural resource agencies, apparently differed with the boss on this one, saying he favors “efficiencies” but not consolidation. Rowe opposes consolidation. Richardson called for “lean management” and cooperation amongst agencies rather than consolidation. Scarcelli wants “smarter government, not necessarily smaller government.”
Cutler elaborated on his opposition to consolidation, saying, “I’ve done government reorganizations at the federal level — some worked, some didn’t. Moving boxes around is not smart business. When you have agencies that relate directly to what centrally defines our state and manage our resources, mergers don’t make sense. What does make sense is changing the way we do business to reduce costs and tear down the wall of no.”
As the day progressed, I was thankful of the chance to examine, albeit superficially, the thoughts of these gubernatorial candidates about issues that matter not only to me but to all Mainers who care about our natural resources, outdoor heritage, and outdoor economy.
The forum was too short, as were the answers, but I began to sort through the differences between the candidates on these important issues, and focus on the candidates who seem to have the best grasp on these issues and whose answers are most in line with my own thinking.
I hope this blog post provides the same opportunity for you.