The Green Hardhat

It is undoubtedly more than just a coincidence that within the space of a few short weeks, Forbes magazine ranked Maine 50th among states as the worst business environment in the U.S. and then voters turned out of office many of the state’s political leaders and ushered in a new wave of politicians who have vowed to make Maine more business friendly. Many of my environmental colleagues are in a deep funk about the recent election results, vowing to fight an expected wave of anti-environmental policies from Maine’s new leadership. But it would be well if all of us stopped for a moment to reflect on how the environmental movement has connected with the concerns of working Mainers during the recent past.

To be sure, Maine’s abysmal ranking on the Forbes list is partly the result of indicators over which we have no control, including such measures as how many of the nation’s 1,000 largest public companies are headquartered here; the number of four-year universities; and our average temperature. Whoa, it seems particularly harsh to penalize us for our winter temperature. Nevertheless, we can take some measure of pride that one of the indices—Maine’s quality of life—ranks way up the list at 16th in the country.

The rest of the scores, however, which contribute to Maine’s low overall ranking include growth prospects (43rd), business costs—meaning energy and taxes— (47th) and regulatory environment (48th). Because Maine’s ranking fell from 41st place a year ago to 50th place in 2010, there was real anguish in Augusta over the details of the ranking. The state economist questioned how Rhode Island, with its 13 percent unemployment rate—compared to Maine’s unemployment rate of 8.5 percent—could have edged us out for the 49th spot. But we are arguing about whether we are in last or next-to-last place on this list so it seems we are missing the point.

My keyhole view of how the regulatory environment affects Maine’s businesses derives from serving on the board of directors for Fox Islands Wind during the last several years. After the spike in energy prices in 2005, the electric cooperative that serves Vinalhaven and North Haven was deeply concerned about how the year-round community could survive such escalating costs. So the co-op got behind a project to construct three wind turbines on a hilltop to produce enough electricity to supply both islands with less-expensive energy, not only over the course of a year, but at a lower fixed rate over the next 20 years.

Although Vinalhaven is in the area for expedited wind permitting, the project needed to conduct a wetlands assessment to determine whether wetlands would be disturbed. The assessment discovered only a handful of very small wetlands on the 73-acre abandoned industrial quarry site. One of these wetlands—less than a tenth of an acre in size—was a “vernal pool” that had 18 salamander cases in an area of the quarry with no immediate forested buffer. Because 18 cases were two less than the 20-egg cases deemed to be of state-wide significance, the project was not required to submit a salamander protection plan. A year later and two weeks before construction was to begin—which involved the transportation of an enormous crane across the bay that was delivered in pieces on 18 tractor trailer loads—a site review by Department of Environmental Protection staff determined that the number of salamander egg cases in the vernal pool had increased above the 20-case threshold and thus, a special plan would be required before construction could begin. Swallow hard.

The suggested protocol was the construction of a culvert between the vernal salamander pool and a forested area where the newts could crawl. OK, the construction engineers quickly added a culvert to the plan, which would have involved expensive blasting of a fair amount of ledge—but anything to keep the construction from grinding to a halt. But wait. New word from the authorities was that the culvert would no longer suffice because researchers had recently discovered that raccoons had learned to wait at the end of culverts for newt snacks.

So what was required instead was a 17-acre forever-wild conservation easement on a specially surveyed portion of the 73-acre property—25 percent of it—to set aside as a salamander protection zone. Thankfully, the landlords of the site were willing to go along with the loss of economic potential on a quarter of their property.

Now, I respect the need for biodiversity for all of God’s creatures as much as the next person, but wow! This could test the fortitude of all but the most committed environmentalists. You might think the environmental community would be willing to discuss the trade-offs of alternative energy development that reduces significant amounts of carbon dioxide pollution versus a tiny population of salamanders, which are not endangered or even threatened, on an island with many thousands of acres of salamander-friendly wetlands. But no, the concept of giving an inch on any environmental protection issue would only threaten a flood of abuses.

To put this state of affairs in perspective, the environmental movement took hold in Maine when activists were trying to keep Big Oil from building a refinery in Portland and then Eastport, and when Big Paper had so cavalierly polluted the waterways of the Kennebec, Androscoggin and Penobscot rivers that you could not hope to catch a perch, much less a trout or salmon. But those days are long gone—and many of the paper companies have relocated to tropical forest areas where trees grow more quickly and laws are looser. Today, however, it is thousands of small business across the length and breadth of Maine that struggle to meet the ever-increasing burden of environmental laws. And many of them are upset.

The regulators are simply doing the job that we, the public, are asking them to do. And what most environmentalists have asked year after year is that we identify a new protection priority for the regulators to enforce. Environmental demonstrators at wind farms have imagined a new threat—Wind Farm Syndrome caused from noise and shadow flicker. They do real damage to the credibility of the environmental movement while many environmental leaders remain silent.

The point is that the incremental increases in the ever-lengthening list of environmental protection priorities threatens working landscapes—wharves, farms, renewable energy projects—and our inability to balance appropriate development and environmental priorities leaves us in last place as a business-friendly environment.

If the only priority that matters to environmental activists is our quality of life, then unfortunately an increasing number of Maine residents will need to depend on sources of income derived from places outside Maine, which is depressing for young people looking for work. If environmentalists are to remain a vibrant force in Maine, we need to care about the quality of the business environment and the employment prospects for young people looking for more than just a slogan of “The Way Life Should Be."

December 21, 2010