In 1959, the environment was a vague concept to most and protecting it was not a priority. That was the year the Natural Resources Council of Maine was formed to protect the places and values that, in many ways, have come to define Maine.
The group, which celebrates its 50th anniversary today, has prodded Maine policymakers and residents to think about rivers, industrial development and forestry in new and different ways. That advocacy, although it is sometimes too strident and inflexible, has led to cleaner air and water, safer products and large tracts of unspoiled land.
NRCM was formed more than 10 years before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was the first group in Maine to look at protecting the environment in the broad sense, a mission it continues today.
It was a leader in the effort to protect the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and to block dams on the St. John and Penobscot rivers. NRCM and other groups fought long battles for the removal of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River and the Fort Halifax Dam at the mouth of the Sebasticook River in Winslow. It is now part of a coalition that has raised $25 million to remove and refit dams on the Penobscot to open up more than 1,000 miles of habitat for Atlantic salmon and other fish.
NRCM worked to oppose a nuclear reactor and aluminum smelter near Acadia National Park. Later it fought an oil refinery in Eastport.
Some political and business representatives argue that these projects would have brought needed economic development to the state. However, it is hard to imagine how such projects would have coexisted with Maine’s tourism industry and the prized ability of Maine people to enjoy the outdoors in their backyards.
NRCM also had an active role in banning roadside billboards and requiring a deposit on beverage bottles to reduce litter, a move approved by 84 percent of Maine voters. The group also pushed recycling and solid waste management legislation.
The council has long sought to reduce pollution. The spraying of DDT on forestland was stopped in the 1970s and a dioxin monitoring program for the state’s rivers began a decade later, leading to a decrease in dioxin in these waterways.
More recently, the group has turned its attention to automobile emissions and toxic chemicals in everyday products.
Over the years, NRCM has naturally butted heads with forestland owners, business advocates and sportsmen. In many instances, the resulting compromises have meant better state and local policies. The group’s call for more conservation and less sprawling development, for example, led to a better development plan from Plum Creek Timber Co., for land it owns around Moosehead Lake.
It is hard to know what Maine will look like in 50 more years, but NRCM will likely still play an active role.