CONTRIBUTORS

LURC reform: it’s all about the money

Posted March 06, 2012, at 3:51 p.m.

Decentralize and localize LURC with more county representation? Allow a county to opt out of LURC oversight? Remove centralized management of a forest asset that drops billions of dollars a year into the Maine economy?

Imagine North Woods resources as an affiliated, sprawling string of factories. (Maine people legally own most of our rivers, streams, larger lakes and 100 percent of our wildlife. Degraded or inappropriately altered, this property loses it revenue generating capacity.) Proposed revisions to decentralize LURC have the same effect as allowing each factory in its own location to decide its own fate, although the product line depends on coordination of all factories into one productive unit.

No sane board of directors would dismantle a central planning system that delivers the economic goods.

It is our ignorance of those “goods” that allows us to even contemplate weakening professional oversight of our assets. Fishing is $257 million per year. Wildlife recreation: $1.1 billion. Lakes: $1.8 billion per year. Just one mountain region delivers $5-6 million. Stumpage fees: $180 million. Biomass chips: $60 million per year. Outdoor recreation: $3 billion.

This is just a partial list. Not one of these resource “factories” is contained within a single landowner’s boundary or a single county. It is sheer madness to fragment planning for this asset.

Maine is about to escalate what has been a backdoor process for years: collaboration between LURC project applicants and local and county governments willing to sell their approval. If we change the way LURC is run to increase county representatives who are not even vetted by legislative review, then the applicant foxes get to pack the hen house with compliant hens and then pluck them for all their worth.

We have proof of this financial cooperation. Plum Creek seduced approval from county government and local chambers and civic organizations with PowerPoint presentations and offers of financial support even before its application was officially delivered to LURC. I could not find one selectman, county commissioner or chamber member who’d read the application before he or she voted to support the applicant. They were too excited by hospitals and civic events funded, offers of free land for low-income housing, offers to build a new landfill.

Wind power executives offer up the same monetary inducements, always targeting the greatest need: more teacher pay, lower taxes, infrastructure projects.

Proposed LURC revisions give more cash-strapped local players more control of project review. Serious examination of a project’s impact won’t be possible with that much money on the table.

Is this all bad? Governments are strapped for funds. Why not make it simpler for developers to stream funds to these local entities? It’s already happening now, just slowed by a regulatory process that supports a deceptive public input process.

Rural government entities and civic organizations testify to the value of significant, transforming development without disclosing exactly how they’ve been bought and paid for. (Plum Creek paid legal and consulting fees for organizations that claimed to offer “independent” hearing testimony.)

Reforming LURC into a “local control” rubber stamp agency packed with members eager to receive developers’ donations is a mistake. Allowing one county to opt out of an integrated resource base is a mistake.

In my hometown of Boothbay it might make sense to locally permit a fish packing plant, but everyone knows local government is incapable of making sure the entire Gulf of Maine continues to be productive.

Maine’s North Woods, as with the Gulf of Maine, is a systemwide multibillion-dollar asset. Its productive forests, river systems, lakes, fish and wildlife populations, recreational attractions and trails respect no neat boundaries. The collusion of single-minded corporate profit-taking with opportunistic, ill-prepared and shortsighted local control will destroy our most enduring economic asset.

It’s ironic that at a time when most of the country is outraged by obscene profit-taking at the expense of securing an enduring economic engine, we are ready to hand over the keys to our own economic treasure and let people who have not passed any kind of economic license exam drive it away.

Sandra Neily is the author and editor of “Valuing the Nature of Maine” and “Watching Out for Maine’s Wildlife.” She lives in Greenville.

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