The state Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Planning Commission signed off today on vital land use permits Central Maine Power needs for its proposed 151-mile power line through western Maine.
The permits include dozens of conditions the agencies say will mitigate damage to forest values, with special attention to reducing habitat fragmentation by a 51-mile section of all-new timber cuts stretching between the Canadian border to Caratunk.
"DEP's job is to apply Maine’s rigorous environmental standards to permit applications fairly and transparently," said DEP Commissioner Gerald Reid. "The result is a final permit that dramatically reduces the footprint of CMP's proposal, puts into place extensive protections for fish and wildlife habitat, and requires 40,000 acres of permanent land conservation."
But that isn’t enough to satisfy several environmental groups, including Trout Unlimited and the state’s largest, the Natural Resources Council of Maine. NRCM scientist Nick Bennett says, for instance, that a requirement to “taper” tree heights on each side of the line in the westernmost section depends on wholesale removal of all trees above a certain height.
Instead of a forestlike transition zone, he says, the result would be a patchwork of skinny trees.
“It’s not going to help with fragmenting effects. It’s not going to support creatures that need mature forest to survive, like many species of birds and pine martens. And it’s not going to provide shade or large wood inputs to brook trout streams,” he says.
NRCM and other opponents also argue that although the project ostensibly would bring low-polluting hydroelectricity to the region, there is no guarantee that it would actually reduce overall emissions of greenhouse gases.
But two prominent environmental groups — the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Law Foundation — are supportive of the permit.
CLF attorney Phelps Turner says the potential pollution reductions make the project worthwhile. But a balance should be struck.
“The need to face the climate crisis with the impacts of individual projects on individual states like Maine, where a lot of the CLF staff lives and works,” he says.
The project would supply electricity for customers in Massachusetts. Maine voters will get their chance to register their views in a November ballot question, which, if approved, would direct state utility regulators to void a permit they issued last year.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Nature Conservancy's position on the project's potential pollution reduction effects.