Maine has had a long history of relative political diversity for a state of its homogeneity and small size. While socioeconomic divides in Maine run deep, Maine politics is known for its purple shades—even if there have been eras where Maine politics was dominated by one party or another. But in a place of political diversity and a time of increasing polarization, a consensus has emerged around one issue: development. Maine voters tend not to want it. Especially in the untouched wild. But Maine’s deep-rooted NIMBY-ism is something that—while well-intentioned—may be holding the state back as a form of self-sabotage.
It is easy for those from away to not appreciate the nuances of why Maine is so skeptical of development. After all, anti-development politics is present virtually nationwide and has ardent supporters across socioeconomic groups, ethnicities and political affiliations. But even though the story of gentrification, property values and the generic anxiety felt from the winds of change is one that rings true in Maine, there are still unique variables in Maine’s realpolitik.
One of the most salient examples of Maine’s anti-development politics is the Central Maine Power/Hydro-Quebec corridor. The project, which was to build a series of power lines connecting Quebec’s hydroelectric power to the American grid, faced widespread opposition from virtually all sides of the political spectrum, from ardent progressives to Tucker Carlson. While Hydro-Quebec outspent opposition groups—some of which were backed by fossil fuel funding—Maine voters persisted and voted against the project. A referendum to prevent the project passed with flying colors, though it was disputed in court and the project is underway as of today. Critics cited environmentalism and fears of outside interference—especially involving the widely unpopular Central Maine Power—as reasons for opposition.
While there are many justifications for being skeptical of a project that CMP collaborated on, environmentalist reasoning for opposing the project is somewhat more flawed. What little of Maine’s old-growth forest is left would not have been touched by the project; the project would cut only through the new-growth section of Maine’s forests. While the environmental cost of damming rivers has some debating the benefits of hydropower, it is one of the few non-fossil alternatives that could quickly replace energy sources like coal, natural gas and oil. The project may not be as clean as Hydro-Quebec boasts, but it is almost certainly cleaner than the status quo. So why is opposition so fierce—and willing to use environmental arguments?
One answer lies in how Maine thinks of itself.Like many traditions that have been synthesized over the 20th century, modern Maine has painted itself as a pristine wilderness. Never mind that most of Maine’s forests are, ecologically speaking, very new—and that the land has been used for agriculture and lumber in a way that has permanently altered it. The region the corridor would cut through is one that, while historically developed for lumber and hydropower, is now used for tourism because of its scenic beauty. Its history as a working landscape for paper and shoe-making has been erased to accommodate its modern industry: tourism. Much like how Italy has painted its cuisine as much more historic than it actually is, leading to a false tradition being absorbed into the nation’s identity, Maine has absorbed a false tradition of unspoiled wilderness into its ethos to the point that challenges to the wilderness are challenges to Maine’s identity.
This is not to say that Maine should give up its strong environmentalist streak. The fact that Maine politics is so committed to its own land shows a sense of responsibility that has the potential to set Maine up for a very bright future. But the reality is that development is a major part of that bright future. Aside from the CMP corridor, projects like it—development that would help to maintain and create green infrastructure—have been ardently opposed, sometimes by a majority and sometimes by a minority. To help Maine’s wilderness—not a wilderness that is untouched but one that is in recovery and retains a deep relationship to the people that live in it—we need to responsibly develop, perhaps not the CMP corridor itself but projects like it. That means pursuing a lot more than most vocal NIMBYs would support. But it also means saving something that Mainers hold dear and letting our ideal of a splendid wild come true.