WEST FORKS, Maine —
The biggest issue on the statewide November ballot is Question 1, which asks Mainer voters whether they want to block Central Maine Power’s new electricity transmission line project.
Opponents petitioned to get Question 1 on the ballot, and a “yes” vote would ban the 145-mile project, while a “no” vote would let its construction continue.
CMP argues its New England Clean Energy Connect corridor will combat climate change by delivering electricity generated in Quebec, Canada, by hydropower – a cleaner process than burning fossil fuels — to the New England power grid station in Lewiston.
“The fact is that we need power in order to live our lives,” said NECEC Community Relations and Outreach Manager Katie Yates. “And this power is going to be so reliable. It’s so much greener than fossil fuels. Why wouldn’t we make use of it?”
While there has been a robust debate over the wording of Question 1 and the money from corporations that has poured into the campaign, the environmental impact where trees are being cut down is the top concern among opponents who live near the corridor's path.
Fifty-three miles of trees near the Maine-Canada border are being clear cut for new utility poles and power lines to run through a remote part of Somerset and Franklin counties.
"The damage will really happen when they put the poles up. Some of them are 120 feet high,” said Somerset County resident Ed Buzzell, who believes the project will become a permanent scar on the landscape.
“It’s stretching through some of the most beautiful scenery in the whole state," Buzzell said. “There’s no development whatsoever.”
Buzzell said the path being cut is much wider than the 54 feet residents were told.
"It's certainly not 54 feet wide, that's for sure. I've measured it with a tape measure, and it's 100 feet,” Buzzell said.
Until this year, Buzzell owned Kennebec Kayak, a whitewater rafting guide and boat rental service in West Forks.
Buzzell lives nearby on a property he discovered by snowshoeing 27 years ago. From the deck of the cabin he built, he has a spectacular view of the forest and Coburn Mountain.
“Yeah, I said this is where I want to be,” he said.
Like many visitors to the area, Buzzell enjoys fishing, hunting, and exploring the Maine woods.
“By putting in lines straight across that mountain out there, that is not going to help out tourist industry, that’s for sure,” Buzzell said. "I've seen them cut right over mountains, cut right across some of our best brook trout fisheries that we have out there.”
Two-thirds of the corridor’s path already exists. New metal poles being added are rusted brown to blend in more naturally with the landscape.
"This is an actively logged land – happens every year. It's responsible forestry, and we're part of that,” said NECEC’s Katie Yates.
Yates previously worked for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the National Park Service.
Yates said, “As a conservationist and as an environmentalist, this is what we need to do, and these are the measures we need to take on order to have more renewable energy in our state.”
Yates said NECEC has made changes to the project to limit the impact on wildlife and natural resources.
“We have increased the buffers around cold water streams to reduce the impact on cold-water fish species," she said.
While 1,000 acres of forest are being cut down for the corridor, 40,000 acres will be set aside as a nature preserve, in accordance with the permit issued by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
"The worst thing that we could do for our natural resources and wildlife — fish and wildlife species in the state of Maine -- is nothing when it comes to climate change. Climate change is the number one thing that will be affecting them,” Yates said.
Buzzell said he understands the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels, but he sees the corridor as fragmenting pristine forest and fears more energy infrastructure will follow.
"If this goes through, you know, anything can happen. I mean wind towers, the whole land will be developed,” Buzzell said. “It’s a scar that won’t heal. It’ll never heal.”
While hydropower generation is not carbon emission-free, its emissions are lower than from burning coal or gasoline, and Yates believes the project is a step in the right direction.
“I don't think everything is 100% perfect, right? And if you look at how they create solar panels, that's not 100% green either,” Yates said. "I wouldn't work for this project if I didn't believe fully that this was the right step for Maine to move into the clean energy space."