Friday, February 11, 2011

People or Land: Which is more important to Maine’s future?

Since the primary and general election season, we’ve heard and read about “People Before Politics,” one of Governor Paul LePage’s signature mottos.

This thought provides the context for serious reflection on priorities for the citizens and government of this state.  “Land for Maine’s Future” has been a high profile, quasi-religious and fiscal priority for State Government for a number of years, requiring a number of bond issues to fund land purchases.  The Program is managed from a standing organization within the State Planning Office,  and that organization is headed by a resident of Brunswick.

If you check their web site, you’ll find this rationale for their efforts;

The concept behind the Land for Maine's Future (LMF) Program is simple. Lands that have exceptional recreational or ecological value along with working lands for farms, forests, tourism, and working waterfronts all warrant permanent protection. With spreading development and changing land uses, Maine is at risk of losing many of the natural landscapes that residents cherish and that are so important to Maine's natural and cultural heritage as well as to its economic vitality. The LMF Program seeks to conserve these important settings.

Similarly, Brunswick has a program called “Land for Brunswick’s Future,” funded through the town budget.

Both programs are considered so popular as to be beyond challenge, in the same way that our schools and the public library are considered sacred and untouchable.

These programs came about from an abundance of concern about unconstrained growth, or more fashionably, “sprawl.” Conservation and “smart growth” became the watchwords of this wing of the environmental movement. Public ownership of land is supposed to “preserve” it, and thus be the defense against so-called sprawl.

The State of Maine, with its large size and small population, has a plentiful supply of land. We are 38th in population density - less than half the US average. In the midst of numerous other serious challenges, “preserving” land is hardly an urgent priority for us.

Curiously, have you noticed we don’t hear much about “sprawl” these days? And that GrowSmart Maine, once a very public presence in policy discussions, has faded into the background? Growth in Maine of any sort (other than ‘growing’ old), has ceased to be a marquis issue, as it is virtually non-existent.

Side, as you might expect, has a problem with the orthodoxy of the ‘land for the future’ cult.  As we see it, the supply of land is fixed.  The number of acres that make up Brunswick are not likely to increase or decrease in future centuries, unless our elected leaders should engage in negotiations with surrounding communities to either expand or reduce the land under their control.

Similarly, we do not expect the land area that is Maine to expand or contract, other than through political accords we can not now predict.

Surprisingly, a quick survey of literature on Maine’s forested lands, like this report from UMaine, reveals that the amount of Maine land that is forest has grown by about 70% since the late 1800’s.  The report says:

Since the 1880’s, considerable acreage of pasture and cropland have “gone back” to woodland in Maine.

I’ve read in recent years that Maine now has more woodlands then ever before, and that the totals are growing every year.  The report shows that among other things, the amount of forest area in Cumberland County has doubled since the 1880’s!  Emotional and wild-eyed concerns over loss of ‘pristine wooded areas’ look to be disingenuous at best, and based more in environmental emotionalism than in fact.

On the other hand, the supply of people in both Brunswick and Maine is anything but fixed.  People are, in case you haven’t noticed,  a perishable resource.  In addition to the possibility that people can leave the area, or move into it, the crude reality is that people have a finite life expectancy, which land does not.

People age and eventually die, and unless they are replaced by their progeny or in-migration, the population base declines, and may well eventually disappear, as in the ghost towns of the early west, and as is now happening in sections of old Europe.

Let’s be clear: people (“human capital”) are the most important component of and stimulus for economic well-being. But unlike our land, the supply of people is not fixed. Adults age and pass on; children grow up and move on, looking for opportunity elsewhere, taking their family formation potential with them.

Maine is in a demographic winter, with the oldest population in the nation, and a fertility rate that is well below the growth range (or even replacement levels.) Lack of opportunity leads to near zero in-migration, especially when financially comfortable retirees are taken out of the mix.   School enrollment has been declining steadily for years, and if you believe “the children are our future,” this should scare you to pieces.

How many established Maine families can say their children and grandchildren have stayed here where they grew up, or are committed to doing so? Without their family formation potential, Maine’s demographic and population outlook is decidedly gloomy and non-growth oriented.

Unless we do something to turn this around, a desirable and vibrant future for Maine is not possible; decline is inevitable and will continue. Government purchase of private lands is the last thing we need to worry about under these circumstances.

Cutting to the chase, it is Side’s view that Maine has a much higher priority than “Land for Its Future” if we are to have a desirable, and oh yes, ‘sustainable’ future.

And that priority is “People for Maine’s Future,” and more importantly, “A Future for Maine’s People.”

Human capital is the most important ‘natural resource’ if Maine is to have a sustainable and viable future, because as Mark Steyn said;

“There is no precedent in human history for economic growth on declining human capital – and that’s before anyone invented unsustainable welfare systems.”

Of course, the notion of economic growth sends tremors of fear up the spines of many of our fellow citizens, because they despise private enterprise, and especially the ugly concept of profits.  They fail to comprehend that without the private sector, there is no one to pay for their beloved public sector services and the bureaucracy that provides them, not to mention public money to buy up more land.

"Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot.  Others look on it as a cow they can milk.  Not enough people see it as a healthy horse, pulling a sturdy wagon."
- Winston Churchill

It is this reporter’s conviction that we need to attract, raise, and retain people if Maine is to have a future. And we need to provide abundant opportunity for these people if they are to have a future that keeps them here, prospering and raising our next generations.

It’s time to put aside programs like “Land for Maine’s Future” that play to unwarranted and outdated fears, and put the focus where it belongs – “People for Maine’s future, and a future for Maine’s people!”

This is a far more pressing need than buying up more land and taking it off tax rolls.

So, in response to the question in the title of this post, Side sides with people as the most important element for our future.  If you are informed in contemporary thinking and ideology, however, you know that this is not a view so widely held as to dominate policy discussions.

As evidence, here are some rather scary quotes, at least if you think about such matters:

Global Sustainability requires: "the deliberate quest of poverty . . . reduced resource consumption . . . and set levels of mortality control."
Professor Maurice King

"The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule."
H. L. Mencken

"We reject the idea of private property."
Peter Berle, President of the National Audobon Society

"The necessary consequence of an egalitarian program is the decidedly inegalitarian creation of a ruthless power elite."
M. N. Rothbard

"Isn't the only hope for the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn't it our responsibility to bring that about?"
Maurice Strong, Head of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro

"'Protecting the Environment' is a ruse. The goal is the political and economic subjugation of most men by the few, under the guise of preserving nature."
J. H. Robbins

"Christianity is our foe. If animal rights is to succeed, we must destroy the Judeo-Christian Religious tradition."
Peter Singer, the "Father of Animal Rights"

Oh well, six of this, half a dozen of that; what’s the difference, right?  No sense getting all worked up over the future of the human species.

Especially when there will be so many more trees to mark the location of former human settlements.

I only wonder what future archeologists will find on the site of our new school, and how they will interpret its meaning.  If there is any worth interpreting.


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