Is Maine's Largest Contiguous Forest Collateral Damage In The Fight Against Climate Change?

Mar 26, 2019

The debate over Central Maine Power’s proposed billion-dollar transmission project is about more than just money. It’s also about threats to scenic vistas, wildlife habitat and backwoods culture, and whether all of that should take a back seat to what some see as the most urgent challenge of the day — fighting climate change.

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

One way to get a really good view of the line’s proposed path is to head up to the 3,700-foot peak of Coburn Mountain in western Maine. In 15 feet of snow, and even in a burly snowcat with an experienced guide like Pete Dostie, it can get exciting.

Parts of the trail are only 25 feet wide, with a sheer drop off both sides.

At the top, an observation platform offers a sweeping vista of distant peaks and largely unbroken forest. The nearest city of any size is Farmington, about 70 miles to the south.

“All this wilderness, what you’re looking at, is the gateway to the north Maine woods,” Dostie says.

Dostie cut the first snowmobile trail up here. Although there are no big roads or developments in sight, it is mostly a working forest below and there is a patchwork of clearings and logging roads.

The freshly cut corridor and its 100-foot towers would add an unmistakable new visual element to the quilt. It aggravates Dostie that the electricity flowing through the altered landscape line wouldn’t even serve Mainers, but instead head to Massachusetts consumers.

Pete Dostie atop Coburn Mountain in western Maine.
Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public

“They’re going to be taking a wrecking ball to the last of what we have here,” he says, calling the region a prized destination for visitors from hundreds of miles around. “Because there’s no commercial sprawl here. This is what’s left of what was here 200 years ago. So now we’re kind of under attack and, on our watch, we don’t want this to happen.”

To offset the line’s potential effects on the region’s economy, CMP has offered millions of dollars in incentives to bolster economic activity and for broadband access. But many around here say that’s far outweighed by the value of the remote, unfragmented woodlands.

To get a better sense of how transmission corridors can affect a forest, Nature Conservancy scientist Andy Cutko points to a 50-year-old power corridor in Bowdoinham. Young trees and scrub poke up through snow, guarded by a line of utility towers above.

Cutko inspects a tall, wiry shrub.

Nature Conservancy scientist Andy Cutko points out an invasive shrub in a power corridor in Bowdoinham.
Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public

“This is honeysuckle, which is non-native, one of the bush honeysuckles,” he says. “One of the reasons that makes the north woods special is just the absence of things like this.”

The new CMP line, he says, would provide a foothold for invaders. The north woods, Cutko says, are a kind of sheltered oasis for a diversity of native plants and animals.

“One of the important parts of climate change resiliency is just the intactness and scale of the forested landscape,” he says.

Unabbreviated forestland, Cutko says, can deter predators such as fox and raccoon and provide security for more specialized species, such as pine marten or wood thrush, that do not easily adapt to open areas or new environmental circumstances.

“And northern and western Maine in particular just really jumps out in a map of the United States as being unique in having literally millions of acres of large unfragmented habitat,” he says.

This handout map from The Nature Conservancy shows the interconnectedness of the forestland in New England and Canada, and the high value of the area where Central Maine Power wants to clear-cut a transmission pathway.
Credit Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

Still, the threat of climate change itself is also why the Nature Conservancy and some other environmental groups have stopped short of opposing the CMP project. They say that in recent years, the urgency of global warming has become all too apparent, and long-distance transmission of renewable energy — in this case, hydroelectricity from Quebec — may have to be part of the long-term solution.

“The reality is we know that we’re going to have to clear forest and disturb habitats to secure that clean energy future,” Cutko says.

But the environmental community is divided on the issue.

“Our biggest concern is that this project is a sham,” says Nick Bennett, staff scientist at the state’s largest environmental organization, the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Project opponents make their opinion known on a snowmobiling trail on Coburn Mountain in western Maine.
Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public

The NRCM, the Appalachian Mountain Club and others say CMP and Hydro-Québec have not demonstrated that the project would support the construction of any new energy-producing dams or infrastructure, and a permanent scar through unique terrain is simply not worth it.

And in Massachusetts, the attorney general's office has testified that state "must" rewrite its contracts with Hydro-Québec to better ensure that they would result in carbon dioxide savings that add to historical CO2 savings the Canadian dams have provided.

“It’s an energy shell-game. There is no new generation coming from this project, and therefore no climate benefits,” Bennett says.

But two groups, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Acadia Center, say there is reason to believe that the project will result in new carbon dioxide savings.

Although they’re split on the CO2 issue, most of the environmental groups have united to call on the state to require CMP to conserve up to 100,000 acres of upland forest elsewhere in the area. That would set important precedent, they say, and mitigate the loss of 5,000 acres they say would be directly or indirectly affected by the western Maine clear-cuts.

Cutko says that while existing conservation law is pretty good at protecting wetlands and streams, the same cannot be said for deer yards and endangered species.

“It really doesn’t do a very good job of addressing those cumulative long-term impacts. And it also falls short of addressing upland forests at a scale that we’re looking at here,” he says.

CMP says it has engineered the line to avoid harmful ecosystem effects, and will conserve 2,700 acres of land in Maine while paying $6 million to the state to purchase more land and easements. But it has not responded to the call for mass conservation of neighboring woodlands, and the environmental groups' ultimate support or opposition may turn on that question.

The state Department of Environmental Protection begins public hearings on the project next week.

Originally posted March 26, 2018 5:27 p.m.