What’s the point of a summer in Maine if you can’t enjoy the outdoors?
People across the state found themselves asking this question in unexpected ways last year as moths spread over tens of thousands of acres, stripping trees and leaving their poisonous hairs behind.
It could happen again this year. More than that, infestations could become a regular problem, ruining quality of life for residents and visitors, and threatening our outdoor economy, if Maine’s response fails.
A bill before the legislature now takes the right path to solving the problem. But it’s not enough.
The bill, from Rep. Allison Hepler, D-Woolwich, would create a fund that municipalities and nonprofits would use to control moth populations and stock it with $150,000. It would also add two entomologist posts to the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to support management of woodland pests.
Towns, villages and others could certainly use the aid. But the money won’t go very far, given the scale of the problem. Even the Ministry of Agriculture, Culture and Forestry, which supports the bill, called it a “small step”.
We need something bigger. Brown-tailed moth activity was found on 200,000 acres in 2021, more than half of it in Kennebec County, a department official said during testimony on the bill this week.
Significant activity was also seen in Androscoggin and Waldo counties, and to a lesser extent in seven other counties.
Infestations have the potential to do a lot of harm, especially in a state that markets itself as a great place to enjoy the outdoors.
In Bangor, dozens if not hundreds of trees were defoliated, officials said during testimony before the Legislative Assembly. The poisonous and rash-causing hairs have harmed people in parks or those who work outdoors, and have even entered vehicles, so much so that local healthcare providers have taken notice.
This is not a scene you want to play in your community. It is up to local leaders to ensure that this does not happen. But they need help.
Waterville has been one of the hardest hit, with the city declaring a state of emergency last June. The municipal authorities have taken the problem head-on. They are conducting a survey to see where help is needed and have earmarked $100,000 this year for mitigation costs.
Clearly, the fund will not go very far if too many communities have to bear the costly mitigation efforts.
And if one community doesn’t do enough to stop the brown moth, the efforts of a neighboring community will be that much more difficult. Same for the owners. It is difficult to get rid of a pest if it is allowed to live freely in the city or on the neighboring property.
Brown tail moth control cannot be done with a house-to-house approach. Nor can it be city by city.
No, it has to be a statewide effort, and it has to be big enough to make a difference. The legislature should avoid adopting what one lawmaker called a “band-aid approach.”
Instead, they should pass Rep. Hepler’s bill and give him enough funding to keep Maine’s great outdoors from spoiling.
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