Douglas Rooks: Land conservation is not a panacea

Last week, we looked at the formidable roadblocks to major construction projects in Maine: the wave of opposition that mounts whenever an industrial, utility, or transportation project is proposed.

Searsport has experienced industrial development for over a century, after the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad built a freight transshipment pier at Mack Point in 1909. It once had oil tanks, but now mainly handles bulk cargo , and is one of three state-owned ports. , along with Eastport and Portland.

Gov. Joe Brennan has proposed a major expansion at Searsport – the state port with land-level rail access – and the Sears Island cargo port appeared to be off to a good start, using the undeveloped 940-acre island opposite of Mack Point which the State had acquired.

The port project received federal permits and construction began in the early 1980s. But it was derailed in 1985 following a lawsuit by the Sierra Club, with the courts agreeing the project had potential environmental impacts greater than had been determined by previous agency reviews.

Construction ceased, the next McKernan administration showed little interest. Today, the only remnant of the project is a 1,200-foot-long causeway that provides pedestrian access to two-thirds of the island that the Baldacci administration later designated for recreation.

Governor Angus King and his DOT Commissioner John Melrose attempted to revive the cargo port project in the late 1990s, using a design that avoided much of the in-water dredging and construction that would derailed the first plan.

That plan also fell through when the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator in Boston, John DeVillars, rejected the crucial permit application.

Although the project was the only one of its kind proposed or likely to be built along Maine’s 3,000-mile coastline, DeVillars decided that the three acres of aquatic habitat that would have been disturbed was too great a loss.

And although DeVillars claimed he had been a neutral arbiter, when he later received a major environmental award, he cited the rejection of Sears Island as one of his most significant accomplishments.

There was a redevelopment of the Mack Point terminal, with expansions for bulk cargo handling, but neither the Baldacci administration nor the LePage administration formulated plans for the use of the port.

Now the Mills administration is pushing to locate a wind turbine manufacturing plant on Sears Island or on the mainland – it is investigating both sites.

Mack Point, which lies below Highway 1 and the historic village of Searsport, has limited room for expansion and any serious plans there would likely produce opposition from scorers and those who emphasize the goal. Searsport’s other identity, as a center of maritime history and the old “old”. capital of Maine.

Yet already, before any real preparation has begun, we hear again how untouchable Sears Island is.

Friends of Sears Island vice-president Rolf Olsen has claimed the entire island should have no development – even though the potential development is exactly why the state bought the island . When Maine’s DOT decided that Sears Island would be “preferred” to Mack Point, Olsen even objected to test borings on the island needed to determine which site would truly be more feasible.

All opponents of development on the island say that Mack Point is preferable, even though development there would be much more expensive and restricted. It’s by no means clear that it would be welcome for existing businesses and city dwellers.

A common technique used by opponents of the project to avoid being perceived as “anti-development” is to offer a much more expensive and often impractical alternative.

The irony for installing wind turbines is that offshore wind is one of the few technologies in sight that could mitigate catastrophic warming that could make the Gulf of Maine uninhabitable for lobsters and other marine life that fuel much of the state’s existing maritime economy.

Let’s face it. We now have nearly 50 dedicated conservation land trusts, collectively protecting hundreds of thousands of acres and miles of coastline. As its association so aptly puts it, “Maine is blessed with one of the strongest land trust communities in the country.”

Protecting the land is an important value, but not the only one that interests Mainers today and those of tomorrow.

Wind energy is one of the few promising businesses that would address environmental priorities while providing skilled, well-paying, non-touristy union jobs along the coast. That some sacrifices must be made if we want these results is, unfortunately, foreign to the thinking of those who focus solely on a “pristine” coast.

Maine has long been a playground for the rich and powerful, and bless them too. But those struggling to make a living here would also appreciate a few opportunities.

Douglas Rooks, editor, commentator and journalist from Maine since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback. He welcomes comments to [email protected]

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