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Conservation is Economic Development

By Susie O'Keeffe

There are many things we need to do to address the climate crisis, but perhaps the most important is changing the way we think about economic development.

Photo by Sally Brophy. The Little River.

The defining narrative is that nature must be sacrificed for economic prosperity—forests must be clear cut, wetlands drained and filled, rivers dammed, and the water and air polluted. Human and ecological health, natural beauty and local businesses all have to be forfeited for the benefit of a large corporation promising short term economic prosperity.

Nordic Aquafarm’s 500 million dollar proposal for Belfast reflects this “business as usual” thinking. Should this operation be built, the lower section of the Little River ecosystem would be irreparably damaged, and Penobscot Bay will receive 7.7 million gallons of warm, nutrient-laden effluent daily. The climate impact alone of this massive factory (as proposed, it would be the size of Bath Iron Works) is astonishing, and undermines the State’s climate targets. As stated in the Maine Climate Council’s Annual report issued December 1, 2023, “protecting Maine’s natural and working lands and waters helps store carbon while supporting our fishing, farming, forestry and outdoor recreation industries and providing important co-benefits, such as clean drinking water, important wildlife habitat, and helping to moderate severe flooding events.”

Nordic Aquafarms' proposal for their landbased salmon aquaculture facility, with building layout (left) and route of the discharge and intake pipes into Penobscot Bay (right). Images from Nordic Aquafarms' June 26, 2019, presentation.

Fortunately, another way of doing business is taking hold.

The climate and extinction crises, along with social justice movements, are demanding new forms of economic development that build on the conservation and restoration of our water, fishing, and terrestrial resources. Small, local aquaculture, including growing bivalves and seaweed, is proving to be incredibly profitable, produces minimal greenhouse gas emissions, and can actually help restore ocean health . Most importantly, it keeps money right here in Maine.

Photo by Jill Howell. The Little River.

Conserving the 17 wetlands, nine streams, intertidal saltwater wetlands and forest that would be impacted by Nordic's development is an investment that will help mitigate flooding and drought conditions while safeguarding water and air quality. In addition, as former water district land, the Little River forest is mature by Maine’s standards. The forest’s sequestration will increase each year while it protects the water, provides critical habitat for wildlife and offers residents and tourists a beautiful place to enjoy.  Finally, carbon markets are rapidly increasing. Technical and financial assistance is already available and Congress is exploring how this market can be accessed by small forest owners.  This forest and wetland complex will only become more valuable as the climate crisis escalates. 

Equally important is the economic value of this land. A United Nations' Habitat study recently showed that every $1 spent on park maintenance generated nearly $100 in economic value. Protecting beautiful community spaces like the Little River forest also attracts visitors which generates income for local businesses. The beauty of this natural ‘gateway” to Belfast and Downeast Maine is an indispensable part of what draws new residents and businesses here, and supports economic and community wellbeing.

Belfast is an amazing city that has already proven how protecting and enhancing its existing assets is the key to success. The City Council should be encouraged to build on this success that has made it one of the most popular destinations in Maine.

Photo by Sally Brophy of the Little River, former Belfast Water District building, and the lower dam.

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