Pine Tree illustration. Credit: George Danby

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Nathan Davis is a member of the Sierra Club Maine legislative team.

You may have heard about a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to a clean and healthy environment to the people of Maine. This amendment is known as the  Pine Tree Amendment, and the Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources has scheduled a  public hearing on the related bill ( LD 928) for March 22. This bill is sponsored by Rep. Maggie O’Neil of Saco and has a bipartisan list of cosponsors and the support of Sierra Club Maine.

The Pine Tree Amendment has engendered tremendous grassroots enthusiasm, especially among the youth of Maine.  Maine Youth for Climate Justice and  Maine Youth Action deserve particular credit for their consistent advocacy. We find it heartening that the fragmentation and isolation that afflict our age have in this instance failed to disperse a tide of common feeling: That the natural environment of Maine is worth protecting not only by law and by custom, but by the foundational text of our state government.

In the constitution of Maine ring the bells of human aspiration, of hope in an expansive and expanding future of justice, common welfare, tranquility, and the blessings of liberty. The very preamble of our Constitution exalts these goals as Objects of Government. In our times of astounding technological and scientific capacity, that language may seem anachronistic or even naive, but we think there is nothing naive about it. The constitution of Maine is not merely a dry specification of the powers of branches of government, and it’s worth re-reading  Article I, Section 1 to remind ourselves of this:

“All people are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and of pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.”

Is this the language of people afraid of lawsuits? Is it the language of people who hesitate in asserting their rights as humans for fear that such an assertion might impede the flows of capital? It is not. It is the language of people who understand that the shared aspirations and joys of humanity transcend the strictures that commerce and government would impose on them, and that these aspirations and joys merit pride of place as the first rights enumerated in the list of rights which forms the first article of the constitution of Maine. A technocratic vision of our constitution as a narrow document with narrow aims is a narrow idea for narrow minds.

The first line of the Sierra Club’s mission statement is: “To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth.” We are blessed in Maine with an abundance of wild places, from the awesome ridges and peaks of Katahdin, to the wind-whipped and salt-scoured headlands of the Cutler Coast, to the serene and remote headwaters of the Allagash, to our vanishing coastal marshes which each spring vibrate into an efflorescence that calls us anew to stewardship.

There is no question in our minds — none — that these places deserve constitutional protection at the same level as the right of possessing and protecting property, or the right to bear arms, or the right to freedom from corporal punishment under military law, or any of the other rights enumerated in the 25 existing sections of Article I. The question that Maine faces is whether the right to a clean and healthy environment is fundamental to what Maine is and what Maine will become in a future that belongs to the youth now reckoning with the environmental heedlessness of our era. The gravity and joy which intermingle in the voices of these youth are the seeds from which will spring this future.

Sierra Club Maine urges the people of Maine to support the Pine Tree Amendment. Please contact your state representatives and state senators and ask that they support it, too.