Fire and rain; a tale of two cities

When I was 15, I was sent to live with my uncle Leonard in West Peru, Maine.

I would joke with people during my sophomore and junior years in high school that I lived in Peru but had to go through Mexico to attend my classes at Rumford High School.

If you have ever been to Rumford or driven past it, you know how bad the downtown paper mill smelled. The stench from that pulp and paper mill would make you gag. It was 10 times worse than the putrid smell generated by the MERC trash-to-energy plant in downtown Biddeford.

Closing MERC sparked an economic renaissance for Biddeford. Home values went up; the downtown area began to flourish with several new businesses; and young people from all over southern Maine decided to move here.

Back to Rumford.

One time, while driving through Mexico (Maine), I asked my uncle how he could tolerate the god-awful smell generated by the mill on the other side of the Androscoggin River. His answer was quick with a serious tone: “That is the smell of money,” he said.

I learned a lot from my uncle. He was the director of student teacher training at the University of Maine in Farmington, but he didn’t suffer fools lightly. He was an avid hunter, fisherman, snowmobiler, boater and camper, just like the tourists who visit western Maine every year.

But he always reminded me that most of the forest land in Maine is privately owned.

In Biddeford, we had the luxury of closing MERC. It proved to be a financial success for our city that is perched along the shores of Maine’s gold coast.

In Rumford, however, closing the pulp and paper mill would be like dropping an economic nuclear bomb on that town and its surrounding communities (Mexico, Dixfield, Peru, Roxbury and Byron). They would all feel the pain.

Each year, for the past 20 years, my family goes camping along the south shore of Rangeley Lake, roughly 90 minutes northwest from Lewiston. It’s a wonderful place to hear the cry of loons while sitting around a camp fire and staring at the brilliant array of stars on cloudless nights.

But some people worry that we may lose those opportunities if the NECEC (New England Clean Energy Connect) project is built.

More than 80 percent of Maine’s sustainable forest lands are privately owned. Large landowners, such as Weyerhauser and Irving have a long history of allowing public access on their privately-owned land.

While driving along Route 17 toward Rangeley, you will see logging trucks headed down the highway toward Rumford, Lincoln, Jay and other mill towns, providing economic stimulus in a region that knows its poverty rate is much more intense than in places like Portland, Freeport, Biddeford and Kennebunkport, where logging trucks are a rare sight.

Hey, kid! Get off my lawn!

Many Mainers consider access on private land as their birthright and they rarely think twice about using that land for their own enjoyment. And some of them – such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine -actively work to block any kind of development, including renewable energy projects (wind, solar and hydro).

That last one leaves me scratching my head. An environmental group lobbying to stop a renewable energy project???

As you continue your drive northwest on Route 17, you will see the Record Hill Wind project lining the ridgeline in Roxbury on your left side. That project features 22 wind turbines. The town of Roxbury was mainly in favor of the project, which not only generates new property taxes but also guarantees public access along that ridgeline for hunting, snowmobiling, hiking and ATV trails.

In a perfect world, we may not need more energy. But before people in southern Maine pontificate their opposition to the NECEC, maybe they should listen to the many voices of people who live and work on that land, including former State Rep. Larry Dunphy (R) of Emden.

In a recent letter to the editor of the Piscataquis Observer, Dunphy doesn’t pull any punches: “I believe that when Mainers learn the truth about the NECEC, they will support it as I do,” Dunphy wrote. “Please do your own research. Don’t base your opinion on the lies being paid for by the same oil and gas companies who profit handsomely from stopping clean energy from coming into Maine.”

The bulk of the NECEC project will run across private land and the remaining corridor will be adjacent to existing transmission corridors. The NECEC will preserve and create new snowmobiling/ATV trails, and other outdoor activities.

The project will also pump millions of dollars in economic activity into Maine’s economy while providing Maine and other New England states with a clean, sustainable source of energy that will meet current and future electricity demands.

It’s a no-brainer. Please join me in supporting the NECEC project.

Originally published on the Saco Bay News web site; July 29, 2021

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