AUGUSTA, Maine — More than two dozen people, ranging from farmers and foresters to an Olympic gold medalist, had a clear message for Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday: Laws safeguarding Maine’s natural resources are good for both the environment and business.
As an enthusiastic crowd of more than 500 watched, speaker after speaker during Thursday’s Roundtable on Maine People and the Environment told LePage that Maine’s scenic beauty and clean environment are the “brand” that draws tourists, helps sell Maine-made products elsewhere, and attracts new businesses and residents to the state.
Weakening laws that protect those natural resources in the name of “regulatory reform,” speakers warned, would tarnish that brand and harm the business climate he is trying to improve.
“If our coastal waters are not clean, it is impossible for all commercial fishermen, not just clammers, to market the Maine brand,” said Chad Coffin, president of the Maine Clammers Association.
LePage, who made regulatory reform the central platform of his campaign, assured the crowd he is all for tough environmental regulations — as long as they are based on science and fairly enforced. But the state needs to become less adversarial, he said.
“If they break the regulations I think the penalties should be severe,” LePage told the crowd. “But if they are good stewards and are working with the government as a partner then I think we can move forward as a state.”
Representatives of the Natural Resources Council of Maine approached the LePage administration about holding a forum on the environment back in December after the then governor-elect held a similar round table with business leaders.
The 28 panel members included the president of a large dairy corporation, a tribal chief, a lumber retailer, an orchard owner whose land was protected through the Land for Maine’s Future program as well as a mother and doctor both concerned about toxic chemicals.
Nearly everyone urged LePage to tread carefully as his administration examines laws some critics claim are detrimental to business growth.
“Regulations aren’t perfect, and some may need fixing,” said Harry Dwyer, a licensed forester and logger who owns Ghost Dance Forestry in Fayette. “But regulations are not the enemy. They are an important tool” to protect resources for future generations.
Maine native and Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson agreed that Maine’s brand — which ranges from potatoes from Aroostook County to ships built in Kittery — needs protection.
“We have resources no other state has,” Samuelson said.
Horace “Hoddy” Hildreth, a former Republican state senator who is chairman of Diversified Communications, a company with 200 employees, said many of the laws protecting Maine’s air, land and water were enacted by Republican-controlled legislatures responding to the industrial abuses of the 1960s and 1970s.
“Their implementation has from time to time caused frustration and even outrage,” Hildreth said. “But I submit to you that working on the regulations to make sure they are responsive to the plain intent of the statutes is a better way to go than gutting or repealing the laws.”
LePage garnered loud applause when he said he believes fishing, farming and forestry are central to Maine’s economic future and when he pledged to protect the environment.
“I believe in real, strong environmental laws, and I would not challenge a strong environmental law that is based on science,” LePage said.
But the governor said he believes some Maine regulations go too far. Unfortunately, the law LePage cited as an example of overregulation no longer exists in Maine.
LePage said he recently heard from potato farmers concerned about a new law that would require them to notify neighbors 90 days before they use pesticides. LePage said that would prevent farmers from treating for sudden disease outbreaks that could wipe out their crops.
“Now we need to think about that,” the governor said. “That is where science and common sense need to sort of communicate.”
But Heather Spalding with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association said there is no 90-day notification requirement. Instead, farmers are required to contact only those neighbors who added their names to a pesticide application notification registry, and such notifications can be made between seven days and 24 hours before spraying.
Additionally, Maine’s law allows farmers to apply pesticides in emergency situations without prior warning, although they subsequently must notify those neighbors who are on the registry as well as the Maine Board of Pesticides Control.
Spalding speculated that the farmer might have been confused with an earlier version of the notification process that was never implemented. Spalding said she spoke with LePage after the event.
Dan Demeritt, spokesman for LePage, attributed the governor’s statements to a disconnect between concerns expressed by a farmer and the most recent version of the law.
“He is glad to learn the [90-day] notification is no longer required,” Demeritt said.