Op-Ed Downeast Coastal Press
March 6, 2007

DEP offers “fix” to protect landowners, feathered guests of coastal ecosystem.

Maine DEP and Lawmakers Propose to Refine Protection for Global Migratory Bird Habitat

By David Littell, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection

A new state law that protects an at–risk portion of a worldwide ecosystem is itself in peril. Ten bills before the 123rd Maine Legislature propose to curb or repeal a measure to preserve significant wildlife habitat that is essential to the existence of 36 species of migratory shorebirds.

Just last year, the legislature gave final approval to the adoption of rules regarding vernal pools as well as inland and shorebird habitats. With ink barely dry since taking effect last June, the shorebird habitat protection provision of the rules faced new scrutiny because landowners Downeast raised concerns with impacts on the real estate industry.

The rules protect shorebirds, a diverse group of coastal visitors that includes sandpipers, plovers, turnstones, knots, curlews, dowitchers and phalaropes. While populations of some shorebirds are stable, others like Black–bellied Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Short–billed Dowitcher, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot and Dunlin are in decline.

All these species rely upon Maine’s unique and rich coastal shoreline as they migrate from Canadian arctic breeding grounds to their wintering areas in South America. Few locations along their entire journey provide the necessary feeding areas accompanied by nearby critical roosting sites that enable each bird to bulk up on energy reserves necessary to survive their next leg of migration which can be 2000 miles or more nonstop.

Without sufficient food and rest, the birds will either run out of fuel — literally — and plummet into the ocean or succumb to exhaustion upon reaching their South American destination.

The Maine Legislature rightly acted to protect these vulnerable species last April by setting new permitting standards for development within 250 feet of designated shorebird Shorebirds habitat. The law sets conditions for landowners who intend to develop residential property so that new houses and associated disturbances minimize impact on shorebirds particularly sensitive to human interference.

Impact minimization are key words to understanding this law. Longstanding coastal zone development regulations have always sought to avoid development first or, when that is not reasonable, provide for flexibility that minimizes its consequences upon the protected environment, which in this case is critical bird habitat.

What is unique to this law, however, is the specific recognition of shorebird protection by expanding the protective buffer from 75 feet under shoreland zoning to 250 feet under the new rules.

Maine realtors, owners of undeveloped coastal property and even legislators learned details of the shorebird habitat provision after its passage. No doubt, better communication could have avoided the strong reactions that ignited the much–publicized misperception that the law creates new no–build or overly restrictive zones for undeveloped portions of coastal Maine.

Hearing these concerns, the Department of Environmental Protection now proposes to fine tune the areas in need of protection while reducing the impact on landowners. Rather than designating 250–foot wide buffers for all shorebird habitats, DEP recommends resetting affected areas to 75–foot buffers for feeding areas while sustaining 250–foot buffers for roosting areas.

Further proposed adjustments to the law define strict standards for tree cutting within the roosting and feeding buffers. These biologically sound amendments, if adopted by the Legislature, will still preserve habitat that sustains species valuable to Maine and beyond.

Will they leave owners of undeveloped shoreland property free of environmental responsibility?

Of course not. But alarm of over–reaching regulation or property devaluation is misplaced. Like other resource protection measures, this law over time will also increase the value of some of Maine’s richest assets — its natural integrity, wildlife and scenic character — that will continue to sustainably draw tourists and new resident alike to our great state.

Response to this Op-Ed: The Fix Is In

More on the “habitat” land control agenda for Maine: www.moosecove.com/propertyrights/index.shtml#habitat