Downeast Coastal Press
October 21, 2003

Guest Column

Habitat Program: Land-Grab Scheme

By Mike McCabe

It is unfortunate that Herb Cleaves presented only one type of outcome that could result from the use by towns of the Beginning with Habitat program (Downeast Coastal Press, October 14-20) – “rendering your property useless to you” – and that he presented this outcome as the only result possible. Sure, if the residents, property owners, and town officials of a particular town agreed that protecting all the habitat within the town of the “addled-brain eastern polecat” is more important than leaving the town's affected property owners alone to develop their land as they want, future development of that affected land area would be difficult to impossible. But, despite Mr. Cleaves's inflammatory language, there is no authority within the Beginning with Habitat program that would “force planning boards in the boonies to kowtow to state dictates regarding the use of private land.” Use of the habitat information is at the discretion of the town.

A misconception that appears to be central to Mr. Cleaves's antagonistic approach to the Beginning with Habitat program is that preservation of habitat is equivalent to “rendering your property valueless to you.” This may be the attitude of residents in Las Vegas, Houston, or the industrialized Jersey flats, but this is not the attitude of most Maine residents, perhaps Mr. Cleaves excepted. We value our natural environment.

Our rivers, streams and lakes provide a variety of fishing and boating opportunities for us, homes for fish and bugs, and food for birds and other animals. Our forests provide wood for homes, fireplaces and a variety of paper products; tips for wreaths; and homes for deer, bear, moose, birds and other critters-some of whom we can hunt. Our barrens, grassland and brushy areas provide fruit and vegetables for us as well as homes for a variety of birds and animals. And our marshes and wetlands are a natural filtration system for us as well as home to those creatures who like that sort of habitat.

These habitats are valuable just as they are. If we cut down all our forests and become a prairie state like Kansas, where would our moose and eagles go? If we pollute our rivers and lakes, where will our fish go? Would we want to swim or kayak in water that will burn if we put a match to it? Don't we want to keep our critters here if only for the enjoyment (e.g., hunting, fishing, bird watching) we get from them? And don't we want to continue the Maine tradition of access to the land? Mr. Cleaves, you are wrong; “undeveloped” land does have value.

Mr. Cleaves seems to imply that only development brings value to property. But if there were no more forests, fields, lakes, streams and wetlands in Maine, we might as well be living in Cleveland or Detroit. Do we want Washington County to become another Miami Beach, with high rise buildings all along the coast? Is this what our Registered Maine Guides would take visitors to see? What about another North Carolina, with pig and chicken farms everywhere? What about another West Virginia, with its strip mining legacy? Or maybe we want to become another Nevada, with legalized casinos and houses of prostitution everywhere?

What the Beginning with Habitat program does is provide information on the important habitats within a town so that the townspeople can decide which habitats are most important and, of these, which are most important to preserve. We should welcome this information enthusiastically because it helps us avoid some of the free-wheeling development fiascos that have taken place elsewhere.

The Beginning with Habitat's “head propagandist” Colleen Ryan (Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Augusta) gave a presentation in Whiting the evening after her presentation in Addison. Some two dozen area residents attended. Ms. Ryan gave her presentation at the invitation of the Whiting Comprehensive Planning Committee. The maps and information she provided at the meeting were both important and useful to our town.

The Comprehensive Planning Committee will use the information to help us determine the recommendations about future land use we make to our fellow residents and property owners. Our entire community will use the information to help us make recommendations to our officials about future land use within the town.

Development already has come to Whiting, and it will continue. But if we know where the most important habitats are, we can choose, if we want, to steer development away from these areas. Why would we not want more information on which to make our decisions?

If we want to keep moose and bald eagles in Whiting, it's good that we know that these creatures usually require blocks of land of 500 “ 2,500 acres in size; black bears require more land. If we choose to keep our undeveloped land blocks to less than 100 acres, we will lose our hawks, owls and deer. Beginning with Habitat data give us this information. Whiting has many different parcels of marshes and wetlands. Beginning with Habitat data show which of these are more, and which are less, important habitat.

The Beginning with Habitat program is not a “land-grab scheme.” It is a program to provide information to towns for the townspeople to update and use in their decision making. The town has the power to act on this information in any way the townspeople vote to do so. ...

I would hope that Mr. Cleaves would review the facts of the Beginning with Habitat program before making up his mind about it. I would think he would support the additional information supplied to our towns by the Beginning with Habitat program. Surely, he does not wish that we act or write in ignorance.

–Mike McCabe lives in Whiting.

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