Unplugged Back-to-Landers Predict Irreparable Harm to Trout From Power Corridor

Posted by Jennifer on December 22nd, 2020

As Duane Hanson guides his canoe across the glassy surface of Whipple Pond, the brook trout glides quietly under the surface; a rugged wilderness stretches for miles around them, sustaining both fish and humans.

In 1980, when a lean, weathered logger bought land in Maine's North Woods with a blink-and-you'll-miss cottage, a billion dollar Canadian hydropower transmission project was the last thing on his mind.

But now that Maine's state regulators are making decisions about the proposed New England Renewable Energy Connect scheme, known as NECEC, Hanson says it could spell the end of a woody lifestyle that embodies the American ideal—and be deadly to the trout he depends on for food.

"It is in the western mountains. It's a fairly remote area; that's why I moved there years ago," said Hanson. "This is a wild place. I moved there because of what it is—forests, lots of wetlands, rivers, mountains. It's essentially a place to live off the ground."

Hanson's shaggy, straw-colored hair attests to his values; he traded barbershops for brooks, woodland finery, and Netflix for the night sky, free from the light pollution of the more civilised surroundings.

Most of the days for Hanson and his companion, Sally Kwan, are determined by the annual cycles of the forest they live in—there is a time and place to plant crops, draw water from the well, hunt meat, fish for brook trout, can tomatoes, cut firewood, pick cabbages, and pull blocks of ice from Whipple Pond to cool food stores over the coming summer.

They have a friendly relationship with technology—a solar panel is powered by light, a computer, and a satellite phone. They post photos of camping trips on Instagram, curate home videos on YouTube, and maintain a joint Gmail account.

While Hanson and Kwan tell their social media followers that the solution to the energy woes of the world begins with a sustainable lifestyle, there is certainly not much debate among New England legislators about ambitious renewable energy targets.

Instead, they concentrate on large-scale Canadian hydro-electricity: vast dams across the northern border are poised to provide the country with a massive amount of energy that is clean, secure and affordable.

As a result of this attention, Central Maine Power is seeking approval for the construction of a major new component in a grid-based infrastructure—a 0 million power line to transport up to 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from Canada to Massachusetts, along a 50-mile route from North Woods. Last week, members of the Maine Land Use Planning Commission voted 5-2 in favour of certifying that the project is an acceptable use in the areas under construction and that it complies with Maine's land use laws.

But a closer look at national energy trends reveals that unplugged back-to-landers like Hanson and Kwan might be on something: utilities, not homesteaders, may be the ones who buck the trend.

And Hanson and Kwan have been among the most influential faces of opposition against NECEC, raising concerns about the loss of habitat by the project and the potential effects on local river trout. The concern for the brook trout is just one of the many concerns posed by the opponents of the power plant. The possibility of a permanent, 50-mile gash cutting through the canopy has led biologists to testify that it could deter deer and other animals from pursuing their usual migration patterns, and to give invasive trees a toehold in one area of the state that, despite logging, is still wild.

Meanwhile, indigenous peoples in the Labrador and Manitoba regions of Canada—where people fear a rise in toxin levels could poison their waters and animals—have joined up with Maine homesteaders such as Hanson and Kwan in the hope of organising resistance across the breadth of Northeastern power expansion efforts.

While there are little historical data on how many Americans live off the grid, figures from the last 13 or so years indicate a startling pattern. In 2006, Home Power Magazine reported that 180,000 homeowners had opted for off-grid living, with an estimated 750,000 homes in 2010 increasing.

More recently, Accenture's energy market forecasts say that 12 per cent of Americans will live off-grid by 2035, which will cost utility companies like Avangrid—an energy corporation that operates six New England utilities, including Central Maine Power— billion per year.

A 2014 report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy industry non-profit think tank, suggested that the trend is driven by decreasing prices for residential solar panel and battery systems.

"Millions of users, commercially earlier than residential, reflecting billions of dollars in utility revenue, will face a situation to defect the grid effectively if they choose to do so," according to the report. "The so-called utility death spiral is proving not only a hypothetical hazard, but a real, near, and present one."

North Woods Battleground

In the 1970s, Hanson graduated from vocational school and into the forest; working chainsaws and table skidders in logging camps allowed him to earn a paycheck while indulged in his life-long love of outdoors.

His quest for a homestead started and ended in the 12 million acre North Woods, where a century of sustainable forestry activities did nothing to lessen the appeal of life in the largest wilderness area east of the Rocky Mountains.

"The North Woods is, in many ways, a globally significant forest resource," said Dylan Voorhees, director of environment and renewable energy for the Maine Natural Resources Council, a non-profit group that has emerged as one of the biggest opponents of the NECEC proposal.

In nighttime satellite photos, between endless stars and planets of city lights, the northern Maine is a conspicuous black hole—large enough to carry Rhode Island and Connecticut, with plenty of space left for Massachusetts.

The lack of growth is what Hanson drew, and it is also the primary selling point for a whole host of leisure visitors who want to see the land without a towering reminder of anthropogenic footprints. Snowmobilers, Appalachian Trail hikers, hunters, anglers, swimmers and boaters turn up big enough to support the tourism-based economy of the area, but not so great that they ruin the place they've come to see.

Kwan grew up in the smog-shocked streets of New York City; she started discovering outdoor love through survival classes in Mexico City, Maine.

She met Hanson during a guided winter camping trip. Things have progressed, and she was able to exchange the city's luxuries for the joys of Hanson's forested homestead, located southwest of Jackman, in Somerset County.

"It's a place for people to escape," she said.

While they sell handcrafted baskets and knives, much of their time is spent on pursuits that directly benefit them, such as storing the root cellar with a wild game to buffer them against the long Maine winter.

Life on the ground has a strong grip on the imagination, Voorhees says.

"This area is filled with people who may not have made such a dramatic lifestyle choice, but for that reason," he said. "They need to be in a position where they feel close to nature and not perturbed by the kind of stuff that I deal with every day, like someone who lives in Augusta. They're all there because of the special quality of being away from the lack of growth."

One spring morning a few years ago, Hanson was walking down the driveway when he came across an unexpected sight on the access road: people.

Two young men rugged at the noisy four-wheelers and told Hanson that they were surveyors. They showed him a map and asked if he knew a way to get to the far side of the flow that feeds Whipple Pond.

Hanson saw a wide zig-zag line on the map, slashing through the landscape like a lightning bolt. What is it? He asked for it.

"They said it was going to be a mystery. But they told me that. It was the transmission of a power line."

Since then, the possibility of a power line—corrected first by another crew of people delineating land boundaries, and then publicly—has been high for Hanson. "It makes me sick to think about it," he said.

As public battle lines were formed between supporters and opponents of the power line project, Hanson and Kwan were drawn out of the woods and into new public positions focused on their opposition to the NECEC. And when the unexpected lobbyists racketeered appearances in the newspapers and the statehouse, they found out they weren't alone.

In November, during a panel at the University of Maine-Farmington attended by around 75 people, Hanson met and shared a hug with Roberta Benefiel-Frampton, a protester from Labrador, Canada, who, along with other members of her party, Grand River Keepers of Labrador, was triggered by the flood of Muskrat Falls on the Churchill River. The Maine and Labrador factions have established a common concern regarding the expansion of hydropower installations and power corridors affecting their land, animals and natural resources.

Along the vast electricity grid system across Canada and the Northeast, other resistance groups have arisen, each fighting against its own local impacts.

"This problem includes Labrador and Maine, but it's a lot bigger," said Benefiel-Frampton.

Dams around the world, she said, are introducing themselves, Hanson, and a host of their peers, to a global initiative by organisations like Foreign Rivers to reconsider the environmental impacts of large-scale hydropower—what she calls "megadams."

"They're not zero-emission, they're not green, and they're not good," she said, a sentiment she voiced on several trips to New York and New England to raise awareness of the links between the purchase of renewable energy and the negative environmental impacts she's seen in Canada.

But no matter how many hours Hanson spends contemplating it, the idea of a power line running just 1500 feet away from his isolated homestead always hits a raw emotional nerve. When he thinks about it, his high-pitched voice gets higher and his watery eyes get more watery. He talks in the best terms, black and white.

"If this corridor is allowed to continue, it would show that the Bad has power over the Good and the Right," Hanson told the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in an e-mail in January.

That may sound basic, but the army of regulators are basically grappling with the same principles, reviewing tens of thousands of pages of data, testimony and reports to decide if the effect on the Maine economy, the local environment and the global environment is going to be good. Yeah, or evil.

Wrestling Over Trout

The 185-acre Whipple Pond is just 4 feet deep; people can pick their way around its 5-mile perimeter in a relaxed, strolling afternoon. Hanson and Kwan tend to swim over it in a canoe—there are no known invasive aquatic plants—and they float past creek chub, common shiners, white suckers, and brook trout.

Hanson uses the suckers and chubs to bait the tubular traps, and then, he moves them up with around two dozen 5-to 6-inch crayfish creeping around the inside. Other times, they're taking a more direct route to dinner, literally dropping a hook into the water while they're heating a frying pan.

Although the brook trout in Whipple Pond is not especially common, sticking more to the inlet, it is important to the area.

More than a century earlier, in 1916, the United States. Department of Fisheries released 12,000 brook trout to Whipple Pond, part of a much larger stocking initiative to support their numbers. Today, the Maine Department of Freshwater Fisheries and Wildlife spends about million on the stock of about 1.2 million fish, mainly brook trout, in state waterways.

But—important—it hasn't spent money on the Whipple Pond in decades, partially because the pond now supports its own wild population.

Maine produces 97% of wild and native trout in the eastern United States, mainly because the North Woods is one of the few areas where they can survive.

While the effect on trout was just one small piece of discussion around the NECEC, that piece sparked a great deal of passion.

Brook trout is so exquisitely vulnerable to development that even rural ecosystems in Oxford, Kennebec, Penobscot, Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Cumberland have totally lost local populations, according to Jeff Reardon, director of the Maine Brook trout project for Trout Unlimited.

Starting in February, the newly hatched North Woods trout starts to feed on a range of invertebrates. They need cold, clear water with a wide range of water flows, gravel beds and plenty of nooks and crannies to hide from predators.

These conditions are plentiful in the small streams and streams that flow through the canopy forest. As the trout grows bigger, they go downstream into larger, warmer waters and withdraw back to the brooks to escape heat, or to spawn and lay the next generation of trout eggs.

Of special concern, Reardon said, are the brook trout spawning grounds that cross the transmission corridor a number of times, and he considers none other than Cold Stream, the only spawning grounds for the brook trout inhabiting the Kennebec River.

"Cold Stream, from its source to its mouth at the Kennebec River, is a trout mill, and there is no known occurrence of non-native fish in the watershed," he said.

A consortium of state agencies and non-profits, including Trout Unlimited, raised million to purchase 8,200 acres of land to preserve Cold Stream and Cold Stream—with the exception of a small corridor along Capital Route.

The corridor, he said, is where Central Maine Power is now proposing to run the transmission line. Reardon testified that, in Johnson Mountain Township, the right-of-way parallels 1,400 feet of the streams that feed into Cold Stream before going through Cold Stream itself. In all, he said, the corridor has 19 or 20 problematic intersections in the city. Nine of those crossings, in the West Forks Plantation, are bundled within a 1,200-foot tributary stretch to the Tomhegan Stream, which meets Cold Stream shortly before it empties into the Kennebec River.

During the licencing process, Reardon and the engineering firm hired by CMP both decided that more than 100 streams would cross the transmission corridor.

But the state regulators gave wildly different testimonies about how these crossings could have an effect on the trout.

The CMP plans to provide a "riparian buffer" that will protect some vegetation around the river. The taller species, including trees, that could intrude on the power line, would be disabled.

But Reardon says that the height of the vegetation in these buffers would lead to a "scrub/shrub habitat" that is insufficient to avoid detrimental effects on the trough ecosystem.

He says the trout needs a canopy to cover the water and keep it cool. They also need nutrients from leaves and twigs, fallen trees to establish hiding places, and a good root system to prevent excess sediment from destroying their gills and burying their gravelled nesting sites.

In its written answer to questions, CMP maintains that buffers can have both shielding vegetation and root systems to avoid overheating and erosion.

Pressure Over Time

There is one mitigation plan that Reardon says could potentially reduce the effect on the brook trout.

"Taller towers," said Reardon. Rising the height of the towers that will bring the power line through the wilderness from 100 feet to 130 feet will allow the average tree to stand unaffected under the wires.

"I think that if you could keep a full canopy closure over all the intermittent and permanent streams, that would at least minimise most of the problems with the brook trout," he said.

Of course, the aesthetics of steel structures above the treetops are just what those who enjoy the expansive view of the rolling forest most oppose, and adding more mass and height just exacerbates the problem.

"People with visual concerns don't help them," Reardon said. "But most of our concern was with brook trout."

In its written response, the CMP referred to the tower guidelines, which are designed to keep them high enough to reduce the impact on natural resources, but low enough to minimise visual impact and avoid FAA standards requiring towers above 200 feet to be fitted with lighting.

"Taller structures have been considered and proposed for higher vegetation in selected areas," wrote CMP. But this feature was only used to resolve questions regarding other species—the Roaring Brook and the northern spring salamander—not the brook trout. "Specially, taller structures in Gold Brook (Appleton Township) and Mountain Brook (Johnson Mountain Township) have been proposed to allow full-length vegetation in riparian management areas," wrote CMP.

Voorhees said that, when humans move up and down the corridor, on foot or by ATV, they will serve as vectors for other invasive species that have the potential to destroy the ecosystem.

And others have concerns that are mostly symbolic: they see, in the project, the capitulation of the region's largest unspoiled resource to the pressures of growth, pressures that are likely to intensify over time.

On Wednesday, the State Land Use Planning Commission certified that the New England Renewable Energy Connect project was an acceptable use and that it complied with Maine's land use laws. The State Department of Environmental Protection also has to approve this.

The certification from the Land Use Planning Commission received a positive response from the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental advocacy organisation.

"The decision of the Land Use Planning Commission today ignores the enormous damage that the proposed transmission line would have to the recreation experience, scenic character and natural resources of Maine's Western Mountains," the Council said in a statement on Wednesday.

The next possible obstacle for the NECEC will be U.S. approval. Army Corps of Engineers, which held a public hearing on December 5 at the behest of the U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, please.

Back on Whipple Pond, Hanson, like a brook trout, is exquisitely responsive to the danger of growth. If the project goes forward, he says the transmission corridor would permanently scar the landscape, making it harder for both brook trout and off-grid homesteaders to find habitat that suits them.

"If there was a place to move to," he started.

But then, he was trailing off. It can be difficult to picture life somewhere else from inside the North Woods.

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