The first session of the Maine Legislature concluded in early July and it went out on a high note.
No one really knew how the session would go, especially as lawmakers tried to find ways to work in person during a pandemic. But at least from the perspective of those trying to protect Maine’s wildlife and environment, it was a major success. Here are some highlights:
• Funding for Land for Maine’s Future. LMF is a popular and successful land conservation program that has helped protect more than 600,000 acres of working waterfront, farms, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreational areas all across the state. Despite its bipartisan appeal, LMF had not received new funding since 2012 because of the political difficulties in passing bond measures.
However, in June the Legislature added funding for LMF to the budget, meaning the bond effort could be skipped altogether and LMF money – $40 million over four years – would be available right away. A long-awaited victory for anyone who loves the outdoors.
• Progress for offshore wind. Increasing our renewable energy capacity is critical for meeting climate goals, and no technology holds more promise than floating offshore wind turbines. With proper siting and study, it’s possible that offshore turbines could produce more power than is used by the entire state, with fewer environmental disruptions. However, there is growing pushback from a fishing community wary of a new and unknown use of the ocean.
But an important legislative compromise has banned offshore wind in state waters, where more than 75 percent of lobstering occurs, and the Legislature passed an agreement to purchase power from an array of test turbines to be placed many miles offshore, a necessary step to prove the viability and research the impacts of floating offshore wind.
• Pollinator protection. Maine made a strong statement to protect bees and other pollinators by banning a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The chemicals are known to have caused adverse ecological effects, including honey-bee colony collapse disorder and other insect losses. With pollinators on the decline statewide, and the rusty-patched bumble bee already possibly extinct in the state, it was time to take action. Environment Maine led the charge to pass this bill, which was signed by the governor in mid-June.
• Reducing balloon waste. I took a boat trip from New Harbor earlier this summer to look for Atlantic puffins breeding on Matinicus Rock, and on the trip over I saw about a dozen balloons floating on the surface of the water. Biologists working offshore know that balloons are dangerous to seabirds and sea turtles, who eat them or get tangled in their strings. Sometimes balloons are released into the air in huge quantities as part of a celebration and then return to litter the ground. During this session the Legislature established fines for the intentional release of 16 or more balloons, properly treating balloon celebrations as mass littering.
• And more: State agencies will be required to reassess their plans for sea-level rise, helping ensure that Maine towns and critical environments are considered as the coast changes; a “Green Bank” will be established to help fund climate-positive initiatives, and the Public Utilities Commission will be required to better consider climate and equity issues.
The environmental community didn’t get everything it wanted – most notably a bill to ban the aerial spraying of glyphosate and other harmful chemicals over forests in northern Maine was vetoed by the governor – but lots of good progress was made.
Green groups in Maine will take little time to celebrate before turning their attention to the second session, hoping to achieve even more with the help of a supportive Legislature and a forward-looking governor.
Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.