The residents of Gouldsboro in their annual town meeting voted not to approve a citizen initiative to limit consumer fireworks use to July 4 and Dec. 31. Based on a voice vote, the moderator ruled from the dais that those opposed to the restriction were in the majority.
Since the June meeting, a good number of people have contacted me to say they regretted not calling for a paper ballot because they feel, in retrospect, the measure would have passed easily had the moderator not been fooled by the naysayers shouting from the rear of the room. The next warrant item had passed by raised ballot, renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, by a 10-vote margin despite the loud naysayers.
To the extent that arguments against restricting fireworks can be summarized, they boil down to an inarticulate anger that Gouldsboro is becoming a “nanny government” whose regulations and policies restrict individual freedoms.
On the other hand, the arguments favoring restrictions that the putative majority either overlooked or simply did not accept as compelling include: 1) fireworks are made of dangerous heavy metals, dioxins and lead that leave a trail of pollution, not to mention the noise pollution that frightens wild and domestic animals, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and residents who chose to live in our remote town precisely because it is quiet and peaceful; 2) other coastal towns, such as Bar Harbor, Cranberry Isles, Belfast, Brunswick, Mount Desert, North Haven and Rockland, have restricted or banned fireworks, with Acadia National Park, which occupies much of the Schoodic Peninsula, enforcing an outright ban; 3) fireworks cause forest fires — seven in Maine alone between July 2017 and March 2018 — and in a state where thousands of jobs are forestry-related, forest fires are not a good idea; and 4) for the 63 years prior to 2012, fireworks in all of Maine were banned except for special events by professionals who know how to shoot them off without injuring themselves or others.
Other states whose local economies depend on the forestry industry have taken policy measures to address wildfires caused by fireworks. Wisconsin requires those whose fireworks cause a forest fire to pay the cost of extinguishing the blaze. Utah has banned fireworks statewide but permits towns to set their own rules. Idaho, which boasts tighter consumer fireworks regulations than Maine, reported that a single forest fire caused by fireworks, in June 2016, destroyed 2,500 acres of forest and cost $341,000 to extinguish. Many states, red as well as blue, require special permits for consumer fireworks, which I believe is evidence that attitudes toward fireworks are, or should be, nonpartisan.
Gouldsboro already requires “burn permits” for unwanted brush for reasons of health and safety, and I have yet to hear a complaint that such permits are unnecessary.
But quite apart from the damage to commercial forestry that fireworks can cause, fireworks serve no useful purpose. Making noise on the ground and in the air provides at best a momentary thrill for users and spectators, but also stress, anxiety and even fear among those living near enough to hear the dreadful booms.
Fireworks, in brief, are not simply about individual freedom of their users, but also their negative impact on neighbors. When fireworks are shot off over the ocean, as happens here all too often, the trace metals and poisons get into the ocean food chain — not a good idea for Gouldsboro whose economy depends heavily on lobster fishing.
Ronald Reagan famously said that “Government exists to protect us from each other” and “not to protect us from ourselves.” Presumably Reagan opposed mandatory seat belt laws, food labeling, age restrictions on smoking cigarettes (and, of course, marijuana) and drinking alcohol, cycling helmets, special taxes on sugary soft drinks, etc. All such policies and laws intentionally try to protect individuals from themselves, thereby legitimately curbing their freedoms because taxpayers may incur the hospital costs from injured practitioners as well as the costs in damage to nature and community from irresponsible behavior.
In the end, fireworks are about public health and safety, environmental damage, and the rights of individuals to enjoy peace and quiet.
I expect the citizen initiative to restrict fireworks will again be on the town warrant in 2019 unless town officials take decisive action to propose an ordinance that restricts the use of fireworks. Alternatively, the town might urge all boom-boom fans to consolidate resources, hire a professional and hold a fireworks event at the town’s new public park — if, that is, they first receive permission from all residents living within a quarter mile of the park.
Roger Bowen served two terms as a Gouldsboro selectman.
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