With all the country’s attention stuck on the big issues in Washington, it’s easy to miss out on the little things that, arguably, make a much bigger impact on our day-to-day lives. I’ve been trying to keep up with Maine’s local public lands issues and get as politically involved as my short supply of patience allows. That’s led to some new experiences on my part, like a trip to Augusta last week to testify in support of a bill involving Maine’s public lands.
An almost identical bill was introduced to the legislature last year, passed unanimously in the House and the Senate, was vetoed by the governor, and then failed to get the supermajority necessary to override that veto. So the crafters of the bill made some minor changes to address the reasons the governor claimed he had vetoed the original, and are reintroducing the bill this year. Since our governor has the dubious distinction of having vetoed more bills than any other governor in the state’s history, and is known for his hostile attitude toward public lands, my guess is that the new bill will also be vetoed after passing, and so far it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the veto can be overridden.
The details of the bill are fairly modest, and are probably quite unsexy for anyone who doesn’t have an interest in Maine’s public lands, logging industry, and outdoor recreation. The background is that Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands is funded mainly by leases and sales of timber cut on Public Reserved Lands. PRL’s are managed for multiple uses, including logging/forestry, recreation, hunting, and conservation. (Readers of this blog may recognize a few of the Public Reserved Lands, such as the Bigelow Range, Cutler Coast, Tumbledown, and Donnell Pond.) Maine’s Constitution mandates that the money from the PRL’s can only be used for improvements to public lands, and education (and apparently for building churches? So I heard during the public testimony). Over the past few years, the governor has attempted to use the money in the public lands fund for non-related purposes, until Maine’s Attorney General made it clear that that wasn’t going to happen.
By last year, the public lands fund had a pile of cash (around $8 million) that had been building over the years, and the bill aims to use some of that in order to improve educational programs to train future loggers (by providing money to lease logging equipment and training tools), and to conduct a study to decide which parts of the public lands could use better recreational infrastructure (trailheads, signage, etc.). Pretty boring, and seemingly uncontroversial, right?
I guess it’s a sign of the times, but our governor often lets his hot temper make his decisions regarding policy (like last year, when he vowed to veto every single bill that came before him, just because he was pissed off). I’ve written about his distaste for public lands before. As I learned while listening to two also uncontroversial bills that came to the committee before the one I testified for, the governor’s office and appointees opposed every bill that came before the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry this year. It’s hard for me to listen to the administration argue that spending five million dollars to help local food banks feed needy families is too expensive even though the governor has been building the state’s rainy-day fund to over a billion dollars by refusing to spend money at every turn, but that’s where we are as a state and a country.
There are plenty of signs that the governor is going to scuttle this bill as best he can already, including the recent news that the Bureau of Parks and Lands (which is led by someone that the governor improperly appointed to the position) has been spending that money as fast as it can on unknown projects. And the governor will likely not suffer any political consequences from this because it’s not a big, hot issue that will get lots of people all worked up. It’s just something uncontroversial that will help a good number of people while hindering no one.
This was my first time doing anything like this, and I found the experience to be pretty interesting and enlightening. Because of the two bills being debated before the one I had arrived for, I learned more about food banks and rabbit farming than I was planning, and, of course, about the legal process. It was time consuming, but if you’re lucky enough to have the time to spare, I’d highly recommend getting more involved in your local politics like this. Also, especially if you have hair on your head and it’s not grey, apparently legislators love hearing from you even more (not that I value young opinions any more than old, I’m just telling you what I heard).
I wouldn’t have known to come to the hearing on my own— I have the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club of Maine to thank for that. Whether you’re a member of a local environmental advocacy group or not, get on their emailing lists, talk to them about what you can do to help in the legislative process, and get yourself to the state capital once in a while. Who knows, you might find it as surprisingly interesting as I did.