The Maine Woods

A Publication of the Forest Ecology Network

 Volume Five     Number Two                           Late Fall 2001

How to Save a Mountain?

Listen to the People.

by Lance Tapley

Twenty-five years ago on June 8, the state's voters were asked in a referendum if they wanted to approve the Bigelow Preserve Act, a direct initiative bill. Five hundred volunteers had gathered 50,000 signatures to put it on the ballot.

The bill required the state to purchase Bigelow Mountain - actually, a 12-mile-long range in northwestern Maine - and keep it wild. Traversed by the Appalachian Trail, Bigelow was known among hikers as "Maine's second mountain" (next to Katahdin) because of the magnificent views from its six peaks. But a Massachusetts corporation planned to develop it into one of the world's largest ski resorts.

The political battle leading up to the vote was one of Maine's biggest news stories of the 1970s. "Save Bigelow" was a rallying cry of the state's new environmental movement. Supporting the developers were the business community; most of the newspapers; the legislators, who had turned down the Bigelow bill; and Gov. James Longley, a popular independent.

Near Cranberry Peak Pond in the Bigelow Preserve. Photo by Paul Donahue.

On a glorious sunny day, the voters saved the mountain, creating a large park by referendum for the first time in the United States. Now the nearly 40,000-acre preserve is a treasured gem of our parks and public lands' system.

I led Friends of Bigelow, the group that campaigned for the preserve. Looking back across 25 years of environmental politics, I see lessons for today's environmentalists in this primal battle. In a word, the Bigelow crusade demonstrated the value of populism. Here are some specific lessons that I see:

1. The initiative is a useful tool for grass-roots causes. Our victory emboldened citizen groups to take their case to the voters when the lobbyist-dominated legislature isn't responsive. In the 65 years during which the initiative was available in Maine previous to the Bigelow campaign, only nine referendums occurred. There have been 29 in the 25 years since. One reason for this growth is that our campaign invented the organized collection of signatures at polling places on Election Day.

But the main reason people turned to the initiative is that they could get results. The returnable bottle bill, a ban on "local long distance" telephone charges, and the Clean Election Law have resulted from initiatives. From the environmentalist perspective, there have been big failures, too: the Maine Yankee shutdown attempts of the 1980s and the forestry initiatives of the past five years. Big business can beat back some citizen uprisings through massive advertising. But populist groups can win, and just the threat of an initiative has won some policy battles.

2. Environmentalists shouldn't always fight on the corporate turf of economics. We were the first citizen's group in Maine to get hit with the now-common accusation that environmentalists are unconcerned about working people. Longley warned that Bigelow's acquisition, which he implied was promoted by an elite hiking set, would be so expensive it would "deny money in the future for the elderly, our students, and to an unknown extent to the opportunity to bring quality jobs to Maine." This was hogwash. The state acquired the land using federal conservation funds and land swaps with the paper companies, as our group had predicted.

Maine people have heard similar misleading rhetoric during the past 25 years. Central Maine Power said the sky would fall if, in referendum, we shut down the Maine Yankee atomic power plant. But it has been shut down, and electric rates in Maine have not skyrocketed. The paper companies used the same scare tactics to defeat the two anti-clearcutting initiative bills, conjuring up threats to jobs. Selective cutting of the forest employs more workers than clearcutting, but this fact was drowned out.

In the Bigelow fight, we relentlessly refused to respond to the economic question except in a perfunctory way. We had a positive message and we stuck to it. We said this beautiful mountain range was a priceless part of Maine's heritage. The corporations want people to think that economics is the only argument, but people value other things in life.

3. Environmentalism can be sensitive to working people's needs. We were not unconscious of economic arguments. When we wrote the preserve bill we allowed state-regulated selective cutting. We wanted to have the mountain range continue as a source of income for local loggers. Most hikers today cannot tell that in places the Bigelow woods have been thinned. The preserve demonstrates that sustainable forestry is compatible with recreation - unlike clearcutting.

We also allowed for all of the recreational uses of the land to continue - hunting, fishing, and snowmobiling, as well as hiking and cross-country skiing. We wanted to save Bigelow for more than the hiking set. But we also did not want the preserve to be overwhelmed with use, as happens at some state parks. So we strictly limited snowmobile trails and restricted cars to the few roads in the preserve at the time of the bill's adoption. We forbade new roads or buildings. Bigelow is now much as it was in 1976, without huge parking lots or overcrowded campgrounds.

Sportsmen's clubs and labor unions were our most important allies. The preserve-the-mountain vote was strongest in the working-class wards of Biddeford, Lewiston, Augusta, and Waterville. We did well in many parts of rural northern Maine. We lost in the wealthier towns, such as Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth, where the environmentalist elite is supposed to live.

4. It is harder nowadays for grass-roots activists to get support from "mainstream" environmental groups. Certain environmental organizations today give business interests ammunition for their charges that elite environmentalists are unconcerned about working people. The Maine Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Nature Conservancy, and other groups get much of their cash from rich out-of-staters, particularly from summer people along the coast.

This money path leads not only to an insensitivity to grass-roots stirrings, but also to a reluctance to challenge economic power. It took years for activists to drag the Natural Resources Council (the state's largest environmental group) into opposing Maine Yankee and paper-company clearcutting, the biggest environmental issues of the past two decades.

In the Bigelow campaign, the Natural Resources Council was an early, steadfast ally. We saw the beginning of the elitism, however. The then-director of the Maine Audubon Society made the mistake of giving a desk in his Portland headquarters to our first Friends of Bigelow staff worker. When Sherry Huber, the wealthy president of Audubon, walked into the office and saw him, he was swiftly ejected. Audubon, she said, was not taking a position on Bigelow. Huber's family owned about a fourth of the mountain.

5. Bigelow-type environmentalist populism is undergoing a hopeful renaissance. The Green Party and more-militant organizations such as the Maine Global Action Network have materialized in part because of the conflict of interest and bureaucratization of major environmental organizations. This new movement is very unelite. Two of its most militant leaders, Jim Freeman and Will Neils, are respectively a carpenter and a roofer.

The new Green movement is more than environmentalist. Its agenda represents a political "third way." Greens are synonymous worldwide with criticism of increasing corporate control of all aspects of human life. But they are as critical of bureaucracy as of corporations, especially of bureaucratic infringements on civil liberties. For example, the Green Party opposed the law pushed through the legislature by Democrats, Republicans, and Gov. Angus King to have the state's school personnel fingerprinted as potential child molesters. Bowdoin College government professor Chris Potholm notes that in Maine elections Greens "take" almost equally from Democrats and Republicans.

The Bigelow fight demonstrated that listening to the people works well politically. The Green return to this original, populist premise of the environmental movement is the most exciting development in the state's - and the nation's - political life today. Environmentalists and labor unionists, in a united front, led the anti-corporate protests in Seattle and Quebec City.

The Bigelow battle was 25 years ago, but it points to the future.


Lance Tapley can be reached at

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