Politics & Other Mistakes: The dealers behind the deal

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According to a 2018 news release, Western Mountains & Rivers Corp. is an environmental group focused on “conservation, outdoor recreation and economic development.”

Actually, WM&R is more like a wholly owned subsidiary of Central Maine Power Co.

That explains why Western Mountains is such an enthusiastic supporter of CMP’s proposal to build a 145-mile transmission line through western Maine to bring Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts.

WM&R was created in 2017. CMP paid for its incorporation papers. WM&R hired a lawyer to testify before the Public Utilities Commission and other regulatory bodies debating the power line. The electric utility paid for that, too. In all, CMP has given Western Mountains $250,000 and promises to provide an equal amount over the next five years.

That ain’t all.

WM&R was created by Larry Warren of New Portland, the founder of Maine Huts & Trails and the Longfellow Mountains Heritage Trails, a proposed walking path between Kingfield and Coburn Gore. These nonprofit projects stand to benefit from CMP’s project through land transfers and easements.

WM&R’s board of directors includes heavy hitters, such as Peter Mills, who is Gov. Janet Mills’ brother and the executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority. Mills used to be a state senator representing the area the power line will cross. He also used to think such projects were a scam.

“If a new power line is built,” he wrote in a 2008 newspaper op-ed, “Maine’s power prices may simply float to match those of Boston. Even though the cost of the line will be spread among all New England users, Maine may get little credit for flooding the Northeast with fresh sources of green power.”

Oops.

Other WM&R board members include several owners of whitewater rafting companies. But Warren is the force behind the nonprofit, and he’s unconcerned that being funded by CMP leaves WM&R with zero credibility. Asked if it was unfair to characterize his organization as a front for the power company, he said, “Absolutely. We got involved to protect the (Kennebec River) gorge.”

Sorta.

WM&R negotiated two options with CMP. The electric company could spend $20 million running the transmission lines under the scenic gorge, thereby preserving a major attraction for whitewater rafters. In addition, the utility would donate $2 million to WM&R. Alternatively, CMP could string the unsightly lines above the gorge, while donating the entire $22 million to WM&R.

How would the group spend that money?

“We aren’t in a position to indicate what we’re going to do in the years ahead, because we don’t know if CMP is going to get a permit or not,” Warren said. “Any public conversations about how the money could be invested only increases the polarization in the Forks region.”

That could be a reference to animosity among the rafting companies in that area, who have assorted ideas on how to use that cash to diversify their businesses to make up for the dramatic decline in whitewater customers over the last decade.

More likely it refers to a PUC document that suggested WM&R “may not be representative of the local community and may not allocate mitigation funds to the proper people.”

Peter Mills admitted that claim isn’t entirely baseless. “I think there was some sense when we started that Western Mountains would have become a broader coalition,” he said. “I was taken by surprise by the hostility.”

Because who wouldn’t want power lines running through their backyard.

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