LEA, Loon Echo respond to Agenda 21 concers

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

(Editor’s note: The Bridgton News asked the executive directors of two of the Lake Region’s leading nonprofit environmental organizations to respond to last week’s article reporting on a talk given by Dr. Michael Coffman, saying the United Nation’s Agenda 21 action plan for sustainable living on the planet is now being carried out at the local level to erode personal property rights in America. Here’s what they had to say.)

Peter Lowell, Lakes Environmental Association

In his 41 years as LEA’s executive director, Lowell had never heard of Agenda 21 until last year, when Coffman spoke at the Magic Lantern Theater in Bridgton. He left before the talk was over, not as any kind of protest statement, he said, but simply because he didn’t see any relevance to the educational and conservation mission of LEA.

“I've been part of maybe 15 or 16 different land transactions” involving LEA, including acquisition of Holt Pond and Pondicherry Park in Bridgton, said Lowell, “and in each case, they were all willing sellers.”

Lowell said the landowners “were, in fact, anxious to support the project, and either donated the land or sold it at well below market value” because they recognized the “enormous public benefit” to the region’s educational, recreational and economic development.” LEA, like Loon Echo Land Trust and other land conservation organizations, is authorized to pay fair market value for land deemed to have significant public benefit. And public access on those acquired lands is always encouraged, not discouraged.

Lowell said, “I'm sure that there are places in the country were things are out of hand, but speaking for our organization, I think we are trying to do the right thing, and I think we have.” One of the main roles of LEA’s Board of Directors, he said, is to provide fiduciary oversight of LEA projects, “to make sure we’re not hypocrites and we’re not overstepping our bounds. Everything we do is right open out in the bright sunlight,” and the notion that any of LEA’s actions are subversive or manipulative “is simply absurd,” Lowell said.

LEA only relies on a very small amount of federal funding for its operation, Lowell said. “We try not to be dependent on it because most federal grants are “so unbelievably administratively top-heavy” that LEA has to spend too much time on bookkeeping, which takes away from its core mission, he said. LEA found that out the hard way in recently taking on a federal grant to study the Highland Lake watershed.

“They are certainly educating people about what Agenda 21 is,” said Lowell, referring to local residents who have developed an active interest in the subject and who organized Coffman’s appearance. “But the real question is, does it have any relevance in Casco, Maine? And I don’t see it. I honestly don’t,” said Lowell.

“If I thought that the nonprofit communities were confiscating land or taking lands in less than fair market value — or exercising any authoritarian values — then I would be as concerned as they are. I’m a landowner and a taxpayer too,” he said.

He thinks it’s misguided to target organizations like his. Instead, those opposed to too much government control ought to be focusing their energies on the out-of-control spending now going on in the U.S. military, or at any number of other federal agencies.

“I have my own concerns about how the government is spending its money — I think most people do. The government is bloated and out of control, so it’s no wonder people are concerned,” he said, “especially when we’re not getting enough information to know what’s going on.” But in the sphere that (LEA) operates in, said Lowell, “Agenda 21 has absolutely no influence over us.”

Lowell has no interest in getting into a public debate with anti-Agenda 21 activists.

“If they want to come in and talk face-to-face, that’s fine. I’ve had people write nasty letters about me for 40 years, and I don’t respond to them unless they are slanderous or libelous,” he said.

“The thing is, you’re not going to change these people’s minds, so let them play it out however they can. Until you come in and see what we’re about, you can harbor all kinds of prejudices, and I can’t deal with that by trading shots on the editorial page.”

Carrie Walia, Loon Echo Land Trust

Walia also had never heard of Agenda 21 before Coffman’s initial talk last year at the Magic Lantern. She echoed many of Lowell’s points, saying LELT’s core mission is to protect land for future generations, and it only works with willing landowners. The organization pays fair market value on many of its acquisitions, which include conservation easements on over 5,700 acres of land in western Maine over the past 25 years.

That may sound like a lot of land to some, but Walia points out that only 5% or less of the total land area in the Lake Region is held in conservation. As a relatively small regional land trust, she said, “There isn’t enough financial resources for us to accomplish even our loftiest goals.”

Besides, conservation easements are only one of the tools LELT uses, she said, to protect the region’s most highly-valued natural resources. LELT works with local governments on education as well — because it is at the local level where planning is done.

Had LELT not stepped in when it did to purchase Hacker’s Hill in Casco, the scenic overlook might have been sold off to a private developer, with access forever lost to future generations. Local residents sent around a dozen letters of concern about the pending sale to LELT, making an urgent appeal for the organization to become involved.

A similar scenario guided LELT to become involved in the acquisition of 1,600 acres by the town of Denmark for a community forest. One portion of that large tract contains the Narrow Gauge Trail, an important recreational resource used by hikers and recreational vehicle enthusiasts. The landholder, K&W Timberlands, had a competing offer from a German couple, who were poised to buy the land but backed out when the legal status of the railroad easement couldn’t be definitively determined.

“We are not a regulatory group. We have no regulatory authority whatsoever,” she said.

LELT also has no desire to displace large segments of the population, concentrating them into one area as Coffman alleges is part of the “end game” of Agenda 21. “We opt to pay property taxes to keep community relations strong,” said Walia. LELT’s role in working with the Trust for Public Lands to create the Lake Region Greenprint, a mapping tool, was simply to help towns identify their most prized resources, so that their existence can be taken into consideration in planning for growth.

“It’s not like anyone is secretly carrying out a mission,” said Walia. “We have these shared resources, and to be good stewards and use those resources wisely, there has to be planning. It’s not like it’s a conspiracy.”


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