Midway in their yearlong discussion of developing Sears Island, a Joint Use Planning Committee began hearing from the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) about a new federal rule governing wetlands mitigation banking. The mitigation rule (33 CFR Sec. 332) is the mechanism under which MDOT proposes to register all of Maine in a federal Umbrella Mitigation Bank for Transportation (UMBT), with Sears Island as the first deposit in the bank.

One of many environmental rollbacks enacted during the Bush-Cheney administration, the mitigation rule is full of references to “streamlining” the Clean Water Act, giving discretion to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district engineer and an Interagency Review Team to decide mitigation options, and outlining a blueprint for creating easements to be held by natural-resource agencies and land trusts-all of which enables MDOT to secure permits it could not get in 1996 to establish a container port on Sears Island.

A preliminary discussion of MDOT’s intentions, in the summer of 2008, prompted several of the conservation partners on the Joint Use Planning Committee  (or their supporters) to submit comments to the Army Corps urging that the application for a federal Umbrella Mitigation Bank for Transportation be denied but failing to mention the way UMBT provisions are tied into the port-development agenda. The most succinct statement, quoted by Kyla Bennett (director of New England Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER), comes from a DOT document stating the agency’s intention that “600 acres of Sears Island become the foundation for a federal mitigation bank via execution of a conservation easement.” (This is the same Kyla Bennett who, as a federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1996, successfully blocked an MDOT port development on Sears Island because of the devastating damage it would cause to marine ecosystems.)

While agreeing on the record that a port is an “appropriate” use for Sears Island, the conservation partners on the joint planning committee insist that “the conservation agreement creates no conditions that enable development of a port “-and that the denial of a port permit 12 years ago would predict a similar denial today.

But MDOT seems to have outfoxed the conservationists; the cooperation of land trusts and environmental groups and agencies-Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Coastal Mountains Land Trust, Islesboro Island Trust, Friends of Sears Island, and Maine Sierra Club-is inextricably linked to the MDOT application to put Sears Island into a statewide mitigation bank. Participation of these partners would make the port development exempt from critical public-oversight protections of the Clean Water Act.

Federal umbrella mitigation banking has not yet been tried in New England, and it would set a dangerous precedent if MDOT were to succeed in registering Maine in a UMBT. It would mean that wetlands can be sacrificed anywhere in the state for transportation projects, the damage offset simply by a conservation easement or other types of mitigation (not unlike the way industrial pollution is “offset” in carbon-credit trading).

Investigations by the whistleblower group PEER (www.peer.org) have produced compelling evidence that the mitigation-banking shell game undermines land-protection efforts. Their monitoring of Army Corps mitigation projects shows an abysmal record of compliance with federal laws to assure that there be no net loss of the shrinking base of wetlands remaining in the U.S.

Aside from environmental concerns, there are economic reasons for challenging the recklessness of industrializing Sears Island.  Why should Maine lay plans for another port when the port of Portland is underused and when consumer spending is headed into a black hole? No less an authority than George Soros has been saying that the age of consumption funded by credit is over. With the collapse of markets worldwide, his advice is to establish a new economic engine to address the crisis of global warming: new passenger transportation and sustainable-energy grids to be the first priority. The state of Maine will have to take this advice very seriously, given its unique transportation and energy-transmission challenges and given the harrowing hardships being felt by the most vulnerable of our citizens.

The tail wagging the dog in the joint use enterprise is the Maine, Montreal, and Atlantic Railway, which is urgently in need of a bailout. It would be better for the railroad company and for all of us if MM&A were to be retooled for passenger lines throughout the state.

On November 18, the Transportation Committee approved a motion to submit a bill to the legislature authorizing MDOT to pursue port development, after which a conservation easement could be endorsed. In response, the governor announced his intention to introduce a bill preserving the joint-use option. He and Transportation Commissioner Cole-along with Searsport town officials and, presumably, all the Joint Users-speak with one voice in insisting that the proposed conservation easement not be “linked to” (meaning “conditioned on”) the successful permitting of a port.  But the competing bills to be brought forward in the next legislative session-both sanctioning the destruction of marine ecosystems-ignore the best interests of the environmental community as well as those of the fishing industry.

I speak for myself and many other Sierra Club members who believe that the collusion of the club and their allies with Maine DOT in this deal to develop Sears Island is misguided. The federal regulation that makes it possible should be targeted for repeal by conservation groups when the U.S. Congress reconvenes in 2009. In Maine it’s up to us to contact legislators in the next session and urge that the matter be reviewed, for obvious reasons, by the Natural Resources committee.  Fundamentally, the JUPC recommendations for joint use of Sears Island-called a “compatibly managed” education complex and a “potential” port-are a travesty.  Their plan is a monument to incompatible and irreconcilable objectives.  Opinions can be registered at www.mpjen.org/petitions.

Jody Spear lives in Harborside.