AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly 50 years ago, a small group of individuals gathered for the inaugural annual meeting of a fledgling environmental organization.
The hot topics that day: the Allagash, pesticides and pollution.
Fast forward about a half-century and it’s likely that you would still find representatives from the Natural Resources Council of Maine at most major gatherings where those three still-sizzling issues — as well as many others — are on the agenda.
Incorporated on June 25, 1959, NRCM was organized to be Maine’s first statewide group focusing on a broad spectrum of environmental issues. Exactly 50 years later, several hundred people gathered at NRCM’s headquarters in Augusta on Thursday to celebrate the golden anniversary of one of Maine’s largest environmental organizations.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with NRCM’s official positions and sometimes controversial methods, the organization has been an undeniably influential player in the many spirited environmental debates that have taken place in Maine.
Bill Townsend was among the earliest NRCM members, joining the organization in 1960.
“We were such a small organization. There were really only eight or 10 of us,” Townsend said Thursday while taking a break from his role as one of the group’s honorary ambassadors. “We didn’t have any money. We didn’t have any staff … I had no vision it would grow to what it is now.”
What NRCM is, exactly, is a multimillion-dollar organization with a staff of two dozen whose aggressive campaigns and hard-nosed advocacy have earned thousands of contributing supporters but also plenty of critics.
Among the projects it helped fight are the Dickey-Lincoln dam in the St. John Valley, the “Big A” dam proposed for the West Branch of the Penobscot River and an oil refinery in Eastport.
“Where are the guys who were pushing those things?” Townsend said during a speech at Thursday’s celebration. “They’re not here anymore. But NRCM is still here.”
NRCM staffers and volunteers also spin out a long list of policy successes in which the organization played a role, such as creation of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and passage of the 1989 law emphasizing reuse, recycling and trash reduction.
Other legislative initiatives involving NRCM include: a ban on billboards, electronics waste recycling, the phasing out of potentially harmful chemical flame retardants in consumer products, and first-in-the-nation programs for recycling products containing mercury.
Brownie Carson, NRCM’s longtime executive director, told the gathering Thursday that one of the things he valued was the organization’s “willingness to fight with folks and be allies with them down the road when we have common ground.”
Of course, NRCM is not always successful in its endeavors. The organization worked with Maine Audubon to spearhead a massive public relations campaign opposing Plum Creek Timber Co.’s housing and resort development for the Moosehead Lake region.
Opponents managed to bring about considerable changes to the plan but failed to convince the Land Use Regulation Commission to reduce the 975 proposed house lots or to prohibit a resort at Lily Bay. Plum Creek is expected to receive final LURC approval within months.
In a statement, Gov. John Baldacci acknowledged that he will not always agree with the organization. But Baldacci thanked the group for its help and counsel, adding, “I always look to them for environmental leadership and I appreciate their role in our community and our state.”