July 1, 2010

Environmental activist group visits Maine

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

COPLIN PLANTATION -- The radical environmentalists behind the Earth First! movement usually like to make their presence known.

They protest at government offices and hold tree sits to prevent loggers from clear-cutting forests.

But this week, hundreds of those activists, in carpools and caravans, are traveling from around the country to convene in the remote mountains of western Maine.

The annual gathering, called the Round River Rendezvous, is held at a different location in the country every year -- wherever the movement's followers believe the environment is facing the greatest threats.

The TransCanada wind power project on Kibby Mountain, another one proposed on Sisk Mountain and timber giant Plum Creek's plan to develop the Moosehead Lake region are what brought the activists to Maine this year.

The TransCanada wind power project on Kibby Mountain, another one proposed on Sisk Mountain and timber giant Plum Creek's plan to develop the Moosehead Lake region are what brought the activists to Maine this year.

They started gathering Tuesday at a camping site in Coplin Plantation, nestled in the Boundary Mountains, by the south branch of the Dead River.

About 50 people had arrived by Wednesday morning, said organizer Meg Gilmartin, who expected that number to peak at between 300 and 500 over the weekend. It's been the scuttlebutt of nearby Stratton, where the local economy is dependent upon the corporations, like Plum Creek and TransCanada, that Earth First! is fighting.

"Everybody's talking about it," said Dawn Whiting, who works at the Northland General Store on Main Street.

Stephanie Bigelow, owner of The Looney Moose Cafe, said local loggers have taken their equipment out of the woods because they're afraid the activists might destroy it.

Bigelow fears they might do something to the wind turbines on Kibby Mountain, where her three brothers and son all have jobs.

"If their equipment gets messed with, half my family is out of work," she said.

"I just hope it's all peaceful," she said about the gathering.

Making a statement

At the end of the annual meeting, the activists always hold a demonstration. This year, that will be on Tuesday, but Gilmartin said the event's organizers have yet to decide what or where it will be. "It could be anywhere in the state," she said.

The last time the gathering was held in Maine, in 2004, they blockaded the driveway to the Blaine House and littered the back yard with lobster shells and oil to protest the construction of liquefied natural gas terminals. Six of the protesters were arrested.

Gilmartin said a state police trooper had already been by the site this week to check things out. Bigelow said she felt she had seen an influx of law enforcement officers around town in the past couple of days.

But Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine State Police, said he wasn't aware that an officer had visited the camp site or that police had ramped up its presence in the area because of the event.

"We're aware they're meeting," he said.

'We're not opposed to wind power as a concept'

Event organizer Ryan Clarke said Earth First!'s efforts usually start with lobbying legislators or filing a lawsuit, but, if those avenues aren't effective, they turn to civil disobedience. That includes office demonstrations, tree sits and street theater.

"Basically, just making our message visible," he said.

The purpose of the annual gathering, he said, is to share with people from around the country what issues the area activists have taken on.

In Maine, that's the TransCanada wind power projects and the proposed Plum Creek development.

Plum Creek won approval in September from the state's Land Use Regulation Commission to construct nearly 1,000 houses in the Moosehead Lake region -- what could be the largest-ever development in the state. The deal would also conserve about 2 million acres. But, for Clarke, that's not enough.

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