Rigged from the start?

Posted Tuesday, August 30, 2011 in Investigation

Rigged from the start?

photo by QT Luong

by Gina Hamilton

The Natural Resources Council of Maine and Environment Maine expressed deep concern over the weekend that a study commission on the future of Maine’s North Woods will not provide an objective assessment, but instead has been stacked with people who are determined to abolish Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC).  

The 13 members of the Commission on Reform of the Governance of Land Use Planning in the Unorganized Territories were announced in a press release from the Office of the Governor at 8:30 p.m. on Friday night, at a time when the state was engaged in emergency preparations for Hurricane Irene. The groups contend that this timing was intentional, to reduce public scrutiny of the appointment decisions by the governor and Republican legislative leadership.    

In response to fierce and widespread opposition to Gov. Paul LePage's and Senate President Kevin Raye’s proposal to abolish LURC during the last legislative session, the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee shifted gears to instead create this study commission. But as many observers suspected, the membership of the study commission is heavily weighted toward abolishing LURC, instead of identifying opportunities to improve the state agency’s management of the largest undeveloped forest east of the Mississippi. 

“Friday’s announcement confirms our worst fears,” says Cathy Johnson, North Woods project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “The makeup of this study committee strongly suggests that the study process is rigged from the start, with a pre-determined outcome to recommend to the Legislature next year that LURC be abolished. Although many lawmakers were assured by Republican leadership that this would be a balanced and objective commission, the composition speaks for itself.”

Adrienne Bennett, spokesperson for LePage, said that the governor is very excited about the panel. "He has the prosperity of the rural regions, local control, and the benefit of the environment at heart," she said. "We think this is a well-balanced panel with people from many walks of life, and we are especially proud that Tom Rumpf of the Nature Conservancy is serving on the panel."

Bennett said that it would be "too strong" a statement to suggest that LePage is in favor of abolishing LURC. "He has an open mind," she said.

Nine of the 13 members of the commission were appointed by the governor and the Senate president – both of whom publicly support abolishing LURC. The other four were selected by House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland.

At the May 17 public hearing on the proposal to abolish LURC, those who wanted to improve, not abolish, LURC outnumbered those who wanted to abolish the agency by 53-34. The study committee includes six of those who testified to abolish LURC plus two more who have openly expressed hostility toward LURC. Only one committee member (Tom Rumpf, representing The Nature Conservancy) comes from an organization that testified in support of improving, not abolishing, LURC.

“We’re extremely concerned that this panel is stacked with special interests who want to open Maine’s North Woods to reckless development,” said Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine. “The panel should represent all Maine people, because we all have a stake in the future of the North Woods' 10.4 million acres of forestlands, lakes, rivers, mountains, and wildlife. Generations of Mainers have learned to love the outdoors in the North Woods, and we’re going to fight hard to protect it,” said Figdor.

Bennett countered that the panel meets all statutory requirements.

While this may be technically true, there is no question that the committee is heavily weighted with those who have strong ties to the corporate and landowner interests of the paper and timber industry. Even the “regional environmentalist or conservationist representative” and the “tourism or outdoor recreation representative” (two of the statutorily established slots on the commission) are people who have spent their careers in the forest-products industry. And the representative who is supposed to represent small landowners is a well-known developer in the North Woods.  

Panel members are chair William Beardsley, appointed to the panel in June; Hank McPherson, who is involved in the forest products industry; Sarah Medina, land-use director of a timber management holding company; Donald White, president of the Maine Forest Products Council; and Christopher Gardner, a Washington County commissioner. Each one of these members testified against LURC during the committee deliberations.

The other members are Judith Cooper East of the Washington County Council of Governments; Elbridge Cleaves, president of the Woodie Wheaton Land Trust; Somerset County Commissioner Robert Dunphy; Don Kleiner of the Maine Professional Guides Association; Greenville Town Manager Gary Lamb; Duane Lander from the Greenville area; Tom Rumpf of the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy; and Durward Humphrey of Benedicta Township.

Johnson says, “As this committee begins its meetings, we will quickly learn whether the group brings a thoughtful approach to studying the issues and opportunities for improving LURC, or whether it instead is dead set on proposing that LURC be abolished. We certainly hope that this process is not a charade, but it does not seem to be off to a very positive start.”   

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