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'It Has Not Been Fun' — CMP Transmission Project Divides Western Maine Communities

Brian Bechard
Maine Public
Duane Hanson

Central Maine Power’s controversial project would bring hydro-electricity from Canada to serve Massachusetts consumers. Among the people who live along the route of proposed project, some support it while others are strongly opposed.

This is the third story in our series “Power Struggle in the Maine Woods.”

To get to the backwoods homestead where Duane Hanson started his family four decades ago — deep timber territory, 16 miles from the Canadian border — you have to snowmobile sometimes more than 8 miles in from Spencer Road in Jackman. Eagles and other raptors patrol the air above.

The trail is crisscrossed by moose and deer tracks, lynx, bobcat. There’s some evidence of a recent mountain lion visit.

Along a glacial esker that runs between Hanson’s 60-acre parcel and his son’s 100 acres is land that belongs to Central Maine Power. You can spot it because Hanson has posted a tin sign here, with stenciled letters reading, simply, “CMP powerline corridor.”

Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public
Maine Public
CMP's proposed transmission line would cross right over the trail Duane Hanson uses to get to his off-the-grid home near the Canadian border.

“You can see where that power line is crossing, it’s all hackmatack, and the rabbits are in there big time,” he says.

Hanson’s signs dot the parts of the 53-mile stretch through which CMP hopes to cut down a swath of forest 150 feet wide to accommodate high-voltage transmission lines, strung from towers as tall as 100 feet or more.

In the warmth of his wood-heated, solar-powered house, Hanson says the power line poses an existential threat to the independent life he has carved out here, where he and his family have prospered by gardening, selling handmade baskets and knives, and hunting and fishing for the past 40 years.

“The power line thing, that’s going to affect all the animals and the fish and all big time. That’s what I consider the worst part of it, is it’s just going to destroy the whole area for me,” he says.

The debate over the CMP project is dividing communities along the corridor, particularly in the stretch from Jackman to Caratunk.

“It has been not fun, that’s for sure: emotional, cantankerous,” says West Forks businessman Joe Christopher.

Credit Brian Bechard / Maine Public
Maine Public
Joe Christopher

About 20 miles south of Hanson’s off-the-grid homestead, Christopher owns an inn at the confluence of the Dead and Kennebec rivers. He started out here as a rafting guide, then opened his own rafting company and bought the Sugarloaf Inn.

“We usually employ — some of them are part time, some of them are full time, but over 150 river guides each year. Then you take restaurants and lodging facilities, so it’s over 225 W-2s easy,” he says.

Christopher was part of a group of outdoors-oriented business owners and others that agreed to support the project after CMP offered millions of dollars in economic development incentives, including an agreement to build out the area’s broadband infrastructure.

Christopher says he respects CMP’s right to develop its land here, which he describes as “industrial forest.” And bringing hydropower into New England, he says, should help drive down electricity rates in Maine.

“If we flood the Northeast region of the United States with renewable energy, the industrial rate of electricity will come down. We’ll be able to take more advantage of those types of technologies such as electric cars and otherwise. To me that is the biggest global benefit, and local economic development engine for the state of Maine,” he says.

“The money that’s being thrown out there? It looks pretty, but it’s really a façade,” says Liz Caruso, who was also first attracted to this area for the whitewater rafting.

Credit Brian Bechard / Maine Public
Maine Public
Liz Caruso

Now, Caruso is the first selectman in the town of Caratunk, just a few miles downstream from the Forks. She’s a homeschool teacher and a mother, and she and her husband are Maine Guides.

“We have snowmobile trails, we have hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, the cleanest body of water in the state. The Appalachian Trail comes right through here — we have hikers come from all over the world. So people come here to get away from it all, for the beauty that you see when you’re here. It’s kind of like, when you go down the street, it’s a storybook,” she says.

Caruso has been a fierce opponent of the project in state regulatory hearings. She says the economic advantages touted by CMP are questionable at best.

“How is that mitigating for raping our natural resources, for polluting our trout steams, for permanently devastating our Maine woods?” she says.

Yet as you move farther south from the part of the power line that would cut through standing forest, to the 90-mile stretch that follows an existing corridor, some of the more prominent voices in the debate are supporters.

Take Lewiston, where local officials say CMP’s investment could add a quarter billion dollars to the local tax base.

“Lewiston actually has a relatively high tax rate, so this would really help right that ship,” says city Economic Development Director Lincoln Jeffers.

Credit Brian Bechard / Maine Public
Maine Public
Lincoln Jeffers

Jeffers says the project would generate more than $5 million of new tax revenues, and he doesn’t believe the project would unduly harm the north woods.

He notes that the whitewater community actually depends on utilities like CMP.

“I was a rafting guide. The irony is that the rafting industry would not exist in Maine but for a dam that holds that water back and is released through the season,” Jeffers says. “I’m somewhat surprised at the opposition.”

But back up in the big woods near the Canadian border, nearly 140 miles to the north, an emotional Hanson says he gets very discouraged at times by what the future might hold.

“There’s nobody here to fight it. I just gotta … it just really upsets,” he says, choking up. “Sometimes I feel very angry, and then other times I just feel very sad because of what’s happening, and what could very well happen.”

As soon as Friday, staffers at the Maine Public Utilities Commission will publish their opinion on what should happen. After that, permits for the project will be in the hands of utility and environmental regulators, who could decide by May.

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A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.