I lead birding tours, volunteer for Maine Audubon and write about birding. For the last seven
years, I’ve also served as a legislator in the Maine House of Representatives. Sometimes my worlds collide. They will collide on Dec. 1.
While writing this fledgling column, I hope my forays into state policy debates are rare. However, Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection is about to consider a proposed new rule. It will relax the process by which the Department of Environmental Protection reviews development in areas where wading birds and waterfowl may be nesting.
This all springs from a law that has been on the books for 22 years. The Natural Resources Protection Act designates safeguards for certain landscape and wildlife features in Maine, ducks among them. For better or worse, this is something I know a lot about. I was a freshman on the legislature’s Natural Resources Committee when the law was updated in 2004, and a senior this year when we required DEP to update the law again.
Here’s the problem: Ducks don’t stay in the marsh. Most of our resident waterfowl nest in the
woods. Wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, hooded mergansers and common goldeneyes all nest in tree cavities. Mallards and American black ducks are ground nesters, but require concealment from predators, usually away from the water. When it’s time for the chicks to leave the nest, mom often leads them a surprising distance to the marsh.
Unfortunately for mama duck, homes near water are exactly where humans like to feather their own nests. As a result, if Maine is going to continue to be a state where wildlife is cherished and our hunting traditions are defended, some additional regulation is necessary.
Thus, in 2004, the Legislature came up with a flexible solution. Landowners desiring to build in a sensitive area could do so as long as they consulted with experts at DEP and got a permit. If necessary, biologists from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife would help the landowner avoid or minimize adverse impacts. With the passage of the bill, the Legislature went home thinking it had protected both public values and private property rights.
But that’s not what happened. As the law was implemented, problems occurred that created
more development restrictions than intended. So the Legislature corrected the hitches this year, and it further directed DEP to streamline the permitting process where appropriate. Landowners who met certain standards could henceforward apply for a Permit-By-Rule, a simplified application that allows a landowner to develop a certain portion of the property without further review.
But that’s not exactly what happened, either. As currently proposed, the new rule would apply to more than just homeowners. The relaxed permitting would also apply to larger commercial businesses and residential subdivisions of up to 14 units. Some of Maine’s wildlife experts fear that’s too much. The hearing in front of the BEP on Dec. 1 will begin the latest process of trying to find the right balance. That’s the day when residents may weigh in with their own opinions.
There’s a side story here. At one time, birders and hunters often found themselves on opposite sides. Over the last few years, both have discovered that they have much more in common than they realized. Many of us came to our love of wildlife and the outdoors because, years ago, some adult put something in our youthful hands. It might have been binoculars; it might have been a shotgun. In either case, it meant a walk in the woods and a learned appreciation for nature.
We now find ourselves collectively worried about the conservation of the same wildlife resources, as sprawl nibbles away at waterfowl habitat.
I can think of no better example than my friend, George Smith. For almost two decades, Smith was executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. He is still one of the most avid outdoor sportsmen that I know. Smith can tell you what each species of duck tastes like. About three years ago, Smith discovered birding. He is now captivated by warblers. He has chased birds in Texas and Costa Rica. He bought a spotting scope — the first optical equipment he has ever owned that didn’t have cross hairs.
It turns out that wildlife is important to all of us. It’s part of what makes us Mainers.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.