Down East 2013 ©
You might say the ducks are flying under the radar right now, at least when it comes to a proposal to sharply diminish the protection for their nesting habitat.
But Augusta insiders are paying attention and the battle lines are being drawn on another important environmental issue that could break out into a high flying affair.
Representative Bob Duchesne offers a good history of the issue in his Bangor Daily News birding column  on November 25.
As Bob explains, the Board of Environmental Protection will soon consider a proposed new rule that will relax the process by which the Department of Environmental Protection reviews development in areas where wading birds and waterfowl may be nesting (for this column, I will simply call this waterfowl habitat).
You need to know that wildlife biologists at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife classify three kinds of waterfowl habitat: low value, moderate value, and high value.
This issue has been a long-running soap opera, initiated in 2004 when the Legislature established a collaborative process that required builders to consult with DEP experts and get permits for development in moderate and high value waterfowl habitat.
The process impacted more land than intended and led to revisions of the law, most recently in 2011 when the legislature directed DEP to streamline the process by establishing a permit-by-rule system to allow landowners to develop their property in moderate value waterfowl habitat.
At least some legislators and environmental groups thought the permit-by-rule process would be limited to homeowners, but the new proposed rule expands that opportunity to large commercial businesses and even subdivisions of up to 14 units.
Enter the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all of the internal documents pertaining to this issue created at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
In a November 16 alert to environmental activists, NRCM’s Nick Bennett wrote, “PBR is ok for small development, such as a single-family home, that is unlikely to harm wetlands severely. But large-scale residential subdivisions and commercial development in important wetlands can have a major impact and should require a thorough review, as they do now.”
NRCM and other environmental groups, including Maine Audubon, have called out the troops for a Board of Environmental Protection public hearing on this issue scheduled for Thursday, December 1, at 9 am, in Florian Hall at the Department of Public Safety, 45 Commerce Drive, Augusta.
In the NRCM alert, Bennett reported, “DEP received 39 individual permit applications in these areas between January 2006 and May 2011 and denied none of them.”
To sort through this complex issue, I turned to wildlife biologist Steve Walker, Coordinator of DIF&W’s Beginning with Habitat Program, a nationally recognized program that works cooperatively with private landowners and municipalities to enhance and protect important wildlife habitat.
Walker is unlikely to be attending and testifying at the BEP hearing, nor is anyone from his department expected to be there because the Department of Environmental Protection is the lead agency on this issue. So it’s up to those of us in the media to get his important perspective out there.
Steve is concerned, for sure, about the potential negative impacts on waterfowl from this proposal.
One key issue is the lack of any significant difference between moderate value waterfowl habitat, to which the relaxed standards will be applied, and high value waterfowl habitat, where the current standards and process will continue. There is very little difference between the two habitats, Steve told me, regretting that his agency had not worked harder to differentiate and perhaps designate more of these habitats as high value.
If the proposal is adopted, he feels it will be essential for his agency to reconsider their decisions to designate so much moderate value habitat, and perhaps move some of it to high value habitat. Eighty five percent of the total amount of waterfowl habitat designated moderate or high value is currently labeled as moderate value.
He also said it is essential that seasonal protection be provided to nesting birds, something not currently provided in the proposal. And he’s very concerned that the proposal includes no limit on the percentage of the property that can be developed.
As we talked, I recognized one key problem: DIF&W’s lack of staff and resources – and the fact it receives no tax money or public support – is one reason we’re in this mess. This beleaguered agency doesn’t have the staff or other resources to do a thorough job of mapping waterfowl habitat and making the choices in designation between high and moderate value.
Adding to the complexity is this fact: Because towns are no longer required to place waterfowl habitat in natural resource protection zones or even shoreland zones in some cases, this habitat will end up with no protection at all under the permit-by-rule process.
At my request, Steve called up on his computer a map of Hopkins Stream, the ribbon of water that flows past my house and on for another 3 miles through undeveloped forests and amazing habitat. The stream is very popular with canoeists and kayakers, and my wife Linda and I spend a lot of time enjoying it. You can see all manner of wildlife here, including deer, moose, otters, and beaver – and yes, nesting ducks, geese, and loons.
Steve informed me that the entire stream is designated moderate value waterfowl habitat, even though ducks and geese and wading birds heavily use it, including our resident Blue herons. So now, I have a personal interest in this issue! And I can’t believe a place this special is only classified as moderate value habitat.
Please understand one key thing here: If I got any of this wrong, it’s not Steve Walker’s fault! The issue is complicated and I am just getting into the details now. I’ll be writing more as this issue moves from the DEP to the legislature that must ultimately approve the new rules and process.
I am certain of one thing: this is too important to be flying under your radar. It warrants the attention of each of us.