January 18, 2022

Lawmakers convene next week for the session devoted, theoretically and constitutionally, to unfinished business and emergencies. One bill, LD 2206, meets both criteria.

An Act to Implement an Atlantic Salmon Conservation Plan was introduced last session by Rep. Eddie Dugay, Democrat of Cherryfield, with a bipartisan lineup of cosponsors. It received an unanimous ought-to-pass recommendation from the Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife but died on the appropriations table.

Its resurrection this session requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. Legislators, whether they believe the proposed federal endangered-species listing for Atlantic salmon is an impending disaster or a necessary remedy, have reason to support this important bill.

LD 2206 would provide the volunteer watershed councils, the key component of the 2-year-old, now nearly defunct state conservation plan, with the thing they have lacked from the start — money to carry out specific habitat improvements in the eight Downeast rivers. While it remains unclear exactly why Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt last month suddenly distanced himself from the state plan he warmly embraced in December 1997, the persistent complaints by council members about the lack of financial commitment by the state may have been a significant factor.

For an estimated $800,000 to $1 million, Rep. Dugay says all of the identified habitat-degrading circumstances in the Downeast rivers could be mitigated when combined with energetic volunteers and local know-how. The most prevalent problem is bank erosion, such as is caused by impromptu boat-launching areas and ATV crossings, and could be remedied at a cost of a few thousand dollars each.

Rep. Dugay, a member of the Narraguagus Watershed Council, saw the enthusiasm with which the volunteers greeted the state plan and he’s seen the frustration that has resulted from the lack of resources to carry it out. The money that has been appropriated, which the King administration pegs at $1.2 million, “has gone to state agency staff positions, to studies, to a building, but not to the local level,” he says. “We need accomplishments, not staff. The plan was supposed to be from the ground up. It’s become a lot more top-down.”

Like many in his region, Rep. Dugay worries that the proposed Endangered Species Act listing will devastate the Downeast economy, especially as it relates to agriculture and aquaculture. Yet he holds no illusions that a late infusion of cash can completely forestall the listing: “It’s not the 11th hour; it’s more like 11:30. Even if the listing is inevitable, a real commitment by the state can make a big difference in the shape it takes.”

That should be an important point for lawmakers utterly opposed to an ESA listing. A definite, concrete gesture by the state could make the difference between Atlantic salmon being listed as endangered or the less-restrictive threatened, it could do much to influence the actual rules that would accompany either designation and it could help guide a judge’s decision in a lawsuit calling for an emergency listing. Lawmakers who see an ESA listing as the only viable option should see real value in immediately addressing identified and solvable habitat problems.

And lawmakers on either side — at least two-thirds of them — should recognize the importance of keeping a promise the state made two years ago; not to the Interior Department, not to Atlantic salmon, but to the watershed-council volunteers.

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