After more than a century of strong support of conservation, Republicans of late have taken a dim view of protecting land and resources. Theodore Roosevelt was known as the “conservation president.” During his tenure he doubled the number of national parks and created game preserves. “The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method,” President Roosevelt wrote in 1916. More recently, President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act and legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
In recent years, however, the Republican party seems to have lost its conservation ethic.
The most recent example is the current legislative debate over the Land Use Regulation Commission.
Testifying in support of a bill to abolish LURC and give its duties to the counties, Senate President Kevin Raye said “the acronym LURC is synonymous with heavy-handed government bureaucracy and overreach.” The agency, the Washington County lawmaker said, “more closely resembles a colonial power.”
What has the commission done that is so egregious? It has protected the North Maine Woods from haphazard development that would have diminished the region as a national and international draw for thousands of sportsmen every year.
The region, first made famous by naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau, continues to draw hunters, fishermen, canoeists, hikers and others to its unspoiled waters (home to one of the country’s last populations of wild brook trout) and scenic vistas.
LURC has protected the landscape without shutting down development. It has approved more than 90 percent of building and development permits and rezoning requests. This doesn’t seem “heavy-handed.”
Since 2006, the average time for approval of a building permit has been 11 days; 115 days for a subdivision permit.
The Unorganized Territory is home to thriving, privately managed timberlands. Many of the region’s landowners have given up their development rights through conservation easements over the last decade. Yet, Gov. Paul LePage, in a list of regulatory changes he wanted, said that one-third of LURC’s jurisdiction should be rezoned for development.
At the hearing on LD 1534, Senate President Raye blamed 40 years of LURC management for a sad legacy in the Unorganized Territories, including a 10.7 percent unemployment rate, a high poverty rate and rural out-migration that threatens the region’s heritage and future.
The economic plight of Maine’s rural areas is real and needs attention, but blaming LURC is disingenuous. By its very nature, the Unorganized Territory — which includes numerous off-shore islands — is remote and sparsely populated, hardly the types of places where development that promises lots of jobs is likely to take place. Rural areas across the country face the same problems.
Reviewing LURC makes sense — as it does to periodically examine the work of all state agencies. Engineering such a review so it concludes LURC is “not worthy of a democratic society” is unnecessary and counterproductive.