Loads of Environmental Issues on the Agenda
In a few weeks the Maine legislature meets to resolve some troubling budget problems, putting every state program on the line. But the undertow carries other issues of importance for those who care about Maine’s environment and quality of place. Here’s a rundown of a few key environmental/conservation issues, starting with the most important.
With a budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars, no program is sacred. When the safety nets constructed by the Department of Health and Human Services are being rendered, and when real human needs and our kids’ education are on the chopping block, it's a lot harder to justify programs to stop the spread of invasive plants, keep game wardens on the job, mow the grass at state parks, or grow fish in hatcheries to stock in Maine waters.
State funding for natural resource agencies has gone steadily downhill, comprising 4.3 percent of the state budget in 1981, 3.6 percent in 1990, 2.7 percent in 2000, 2.3 percent in 2006, and just 1.8 percent this year. More cuts may be coming this session. Many expect Governor John Baldacci to propose – for the third time – a consolidation of the five natural resource departments: the departments of Agriculture, Conservation, Environmental Protection, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and Marine Resources. These departments play critical roles in Maine’s natural resource economy, have been recognized as especially important to rural economies, receive little or almost no support from General Fund taxes (and consequently cannot offer any significant tax relief through a merger), serve large and distinct constituencies, offer a broad range of services and functions that will only be diminished in a single large department, and would not be strengthened by consolidation.
A research paper prepared for the GrowSmart report by the University of Maine examined twenty-one different segments of Maine’s budget and concluded, “Compared to other rural states, Maine does not appear to have higher-than-normal costs in this (natural resources) state service category.” These important departments have had the life squeezed out of them already, with reductions in funding and staff and consolidations of administrative and other functions and services. There is simply no way they can achieve their missions if this trend continues, as it would if the governor’s proposed merger is implemented.
This consolidation will also diminish the standing and influence of these departments in the administration and at the legislature, removing any hope that they will be able to achieve the investments needed to help stimulate and grow our natural resources economy. Recent spending curtailments by Governor Baldacci will be followed at the end of this week by the governor’s proposed budget cuts to match reduced state revenues to planned levels of spending. He’s got a tough job on this one, and some cuts are certain to negatively impact important environmental and conservation projects.
Maine game wardens are now prohibited by law from stopping ATV riders without “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that a violation of law has occurred (see my blog of August 25 for the whole story). This new law, enacted by the legislature, took effect last September, just one month after the Maine Supreme Court decided that game wardens could stop ATV riders without suspecting a thing — randomly, anywhere, anytime, without violating Fourth Amendment Constitutional rights.
Some ATV riders were outraged by the Supreme Court decision, and some private landowners are irate about the checkmate delivered to the court by the legislature. Because ATV riders must have permission to ride on private land, those who own that land believe wardens ought to be able to stop anyone who is riding on their land to check for permission. Rep. Ralph Sarty has submitted LD 2354 to restore a game warden’s authority to stop ATV riders on private land (but not public) without suspicion of a law violation.
Private Land Concerns
Last session the legislature enacted a resolve, submitted by the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, requiring each of the state’s natural resource agencies to adopt policies governing their employees when they are accessing private land. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife invited stakeholders to a meeting on December 16 to review their agency policy, and other agencies have prepared policies, too. All the policies will be reviewed and discussed by the legislature. SWOAM’s goal was to have a single policy that governs all agencies, but that has not happened, at least not yet.
Grappling With Illegal Waste
The Criminal Justice Committee will hear a report and recommendations from a group studying the problems of illegal waste dumping, a huge problem for private landowners.
DIF&W must report by January 31 on its accomplishments and challenges in achieving nine goals embodied in the Maine Fishing Initiative created by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. The goals are: Expanding participation in fishing in the State, Improving the State’s Recreational fishing economy, Improving customer service to anglers, Increasing fishing opportunities, Securing appropriate access to inland waters, Continuing to simplify fishing rules where possible, Increasing populations of large fish with public support, Protecting and enhancing native and wild fisheries, and Enhancing and protecting the quality of existing fishing experiences. The department’s report must also include fishing license sales date for 2009, a link to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s fish stocking data on its Web site, and a list of new water access sites created in 2009. LD 807 sponsored by Senator Dennis Damon was carried over to give the IF&W committee a vehicle to create legislation that would improve and protect landlocked salmon. The committee will discuss the bill on December 16 and may take action on it at that time, or hold it over for more consideration in January.
Saltwater Angler Registry
The feds are implementing a mandatory registry for saltwater anglers beginning January 1, 2010 (see my blog of November 24 for more info). But the legislature will reprise its debate of 2009 because it kept two bills alive for 2010: Senator Dave Trahan’s bill creating a free Maine saltwater angler registry, and another bill creating a Maine saltwater fishing license. These two bills will be debated and acted on this session.
Representative Jane Eberle has sponsored LD 2111 on invasive plants, the DEP’s proposed new rule governing installation of culverts – a raging controversy in some places because of the cost – will be reviewed, and the DEP’s Climate Adaptation Group will report its findings and recommendations. The group’s charge: figure out how Maine can take advantage of global warming. This one should be interesting!
This program encourages landowners to keep their land undeveloped and forested by providing a reduction in property tax valuation. SWOAM will offer legislation limiting the withdrawal penalty to one year’s taxes if the landowner files a new management plan and places the land back in the program. The legislature convenes at 10 am on Wednesday, January 6, and expects to be at the Capitol through the month of March. Time to be vigilant!