Property Rights Foundation of America®

from the Sixth Annual New York State Conference on Private Property Rights
November 16, 2002, Albany, New York

Rural Cleansing in Maine:
Watermelons, Wildlands and RINO's

by Jon Reisman
associate professor of economics and public policy
University of Maine at Machias


In the late 1980's a property rights movement arose in Maine in response to efforts by the National Park Service, the Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups to purchase and/or control large areas of rural Maine(1). By the mid 1990's a full-fledged battle was underway, epitomized by the Northern Forest Stewardship Act. Today, the movement lies in tatters and the enemies of private property are ascendant, in control of the media, the political culture and an increasing percentage of rural Maine. The Wildlands vision of a rurally cleansed and roadless wilderness is winning(2). The watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside) have triumphed, aided and abetted by a political class that has sold out capitalism and limited government by funding and favoring a romantic, as opposed to practical(3), environmentalism that worships nature and sacrifices people.

Maine's property rights movement had determined leadership and, despite an overwhelmingly hostile media, was somewhat successful in stemming the tide against private property. In 1990 and 1991 Maine voters defeated referenda to provide additional funding for state conservation purchases. Key leaders supported the gubernatorial candidacy of independent Angus King in 1994, and enjoyed excellent access to the Governor during his first year in office.

Less than a decade later however, the property rights movement in Maine is shattered, leaderless and without discernible influence. Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, state and private land trust money are being targeted on private property in rural Maine, while the media and political leaders applaud and enable these efforts. The natural resource economic base of forestry, farming and fishing is steadily shrinking and is under continuous regulatory and spiritual assault. Forest landowners have become willing sellers and are indeed selling out in droves. The only growth sector in the rural Maine economy is government and non-profits that rely largely on government funding. The population is leaving, and what remains is old, poor and powerless. Within 20 years I expect most of rural Eastern Maine to be a "Wildland area"- no people, no roads, no economic activity.

What happened? How did a moderately successful grassroots movement that had confronted and at least temporarily stopped the watermelon juggernaut disintegrate? The answers include duplicitous and craven political leaders, most especially Maine's Governor and two Republican-in-Name-Only United States Senators, short-sighted corporatists, powerful and relentless environmental propaganda and the Endangered Species Act.

Know Your Enemy: The Indefatigable Watermelon Caucus

The watermelon caucus is an interlocking network of foundations, non-governmental organizations and influential fellow travelers who have been remarkably successful in pushing American public opinion towards a romantic environmentalism that is contemptuous of science, technology, capitalism, individual rights and freedom. In some ways they are like the Borg on Star Trek: relentless, remorseless, resource rich and driven by a simple credo: "Resistance is futile."

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the numerous local and regional land trusts are the visible public face of the watermelon caucus, putting a friendly and supposedly non-ideological patina on the anti-private property effort. In New York and New England, the lead coordinating group for the Wildlands Project is the Northern Forest Alliance, which lists the following members: Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, American Hiking Society, Appalachian Mountain Club, Appalachian Trail Conference, Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, Catamount Trail Association, Certified Forest Products Council, Citizens' Campaign for the Environment, Conservation Law Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, EarthImagery Photography, Environmental Advocates, Garden Club of America, Gorham Trails Inc., Green Mountain Club, Forest Watch, Maine Audubon, Massachusetts Audubon, National Audubon, National Parks Conservation Association, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resource Council of Maine, Natural Resources Defense Council, New England Environmental Voters, New England Forestry Foundation, New Hampshire PIRG, New York League of Conservation Voters, New York Rivers United, New Hampshire Rivers Council, North Woods Wilderness Trust, Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, Rural Vermont, Student Environmental Action Coalition, the Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited, Trust for Public Land, Vermont Alliance of Conservation Voters, Vermont Land Trust, Vermont Natural Resource Council, Vermont Public Interest Research Group and World Wildlife Fund(4).

Other fellow travelers include Restore: The North Woods, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, various state environmental and resource agencies, public radio and television and much of the academic community.

The watermelon caucus is committed to socialism: public ownership of the land base. Calling them socialist, while true, is less effective than simply questioning their commitment to capitalism.

The Forestry Compact: Divide and Conquer

The beginning of the destruction of the property rights movement in Maine came with a citizen-initiated referendum put forward by Green leader Jonathan Carter in 1996. The initiative called for a ban on clear-cutting in Maine. Governor Angus King led a coalition of forest product companies and establishment environmental groups in offering the "Forest Compact" as a compromise alternative to the clear-cutting ban. The Compact imposed new bureaucratic and statist controls on private property, and implicitly acknowledged that private stewardship was unsatisfactory. The Compact split off and isolated the property rights movement from the forest products industry.

Although the Compact failed to win a majority and was subsequently defeated a year later by a coalition of Greens and property rights advocates, the damage was done. The property rights movement had lost the corporate support that, minimal as it was, had enabled it to compete with the well-funded watermelons. In addition, most of the provisions of the Compact were passed by the next legislature, thus becoming law and policy, anyway. The anti-private property, anti-capitalist core of the efforts to ban clear cutting were rewarded.

Funding Rural Cleansing and the Wildlands

Crippling the opposition to public ownership and control of Maine was step one. Next, the watermelon caucus sought multiple and large sources of public funding to complement private tax subsidized efforts by the Nature Conservancy and a plethora of land trusts.

In 1999, the Legislature overwhelmingly voted to put a $50 million bond out to vote for public lands. The property rights movement was outspent by a factor of 200:1 and the bond passed overwhelmingly in every county. In some southern Maine communities it passed by 4:1 majorities. Over 100 small rural communities in northern and eastern Maine voted against it, but it was the unheard and uncared for gasp of a condemned man. Despite analysis that public purchases had disproportionately targeted rural Maine(5), and assurances from the Governor that it would not continue, nothing has changed. The overwhelming majority of dollars expended and acres acquired or eased continue to be in those parts of that state that already have more public land by any measure than urban and sprawl plagued southern Maine. Twenty-five percent of recent expenditures have been expended in Washington County alone, which accounts for three percent of the population and seven percent of Maine's land base.

Federal initiatives to fund rural cleansing included the Northern Forest Stewardship Act, the Conservation and Re-Investment Act. Neither of these passed, but New England Senators in each case advocated for or allowed major funding dollars to be added to budget bills at the last minute. Thus, while the legislation failed, the goal of funding rural cleansing did not. Together with the Forest Legacy program championed by Senator Susan Collins, the watermelon caucus has no shortage of resources to enrich willing sellers and steadily erode the foundation of capitalism, the private ownership of the means of production, including land.

One additional piece of this puzzle is habitat protection plans under the endangered species act. RESTORE the North Woods proposed the Atlantic salmon for listing in the early 1990's. Maine crafted an alternative five-year state salmon conservation plan, which was accepted in lieu of listing by Interior Secretary Babbitt in 1998. Less then two years later, after being sued by several environmental groups, the Clinton administration listed the salmon ten days after the Presidential election. Despite the fact that the state conservation plan contained no provisions for fee purchases or easement to protect salmon, and despite federal and state agency admissions that public ownership and control would do nothing for the salmon, plans to purchase and ease large areas of the "Downeast Lakes" salmon watershed rivers were unveiled in 2001 and have proceeded with more than $5 million in federal endangered species act dollars coupled with state and private funds. In all likelihood, more than a million acres in Downeast Maine (perhaps to be called the Down East National Salmon Wilderness Reserve, or DENSWR) will soon be under watermelon ownership or control. Barely a soul in Washington County has raised even the smallest objection(6).

Watermelons in Control

The sad fact of the matter is that the watermelon caucus is in firm control of Maine's media and political culture. Romantic environmentalism has become Maine's civic religion. Consider the following:

What To Do?

I am very much afraid that Maine is a lost cause. The culture is anti-capitalist and romantically and religiously environmental without any reference to sound science or common sense. Much of designated Wildlands will likely come under public ownership or control over the next 20 years. The natural resource economic base has been grievously wounded by referenda, litigation, legislation and endangered species. Replacing capitalism with a system of public ownership and control won't sustain the people of rural Maine — it will finish the job.

Property rights advocates should record the rural cleansing as it occurs over the next two decades and note the conditions that led to it. I offer the following recommendations to avoid a similar fate:


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