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Two coastal advocacy organizations are accusing the Sierra Club of backing down from its position as a protector of Sears Island, a large, uninhabited island off Maine’s Down East coast. The Maine chapter of the Sierra Club, meanwhile, maintains that it has won a conservation victory that will permanently protect 600 acres of the 941-acre island — and remains ambivalent about building a cargo port there.

Sears Island, the largest undeveloped island on the Atlantic coast, has been the center of controversy for decades. Since the 1980s, the state Sierra Club has helped fend off several attempts to develop it — including a 2005 proposal to build a liquefied natural gas facility there. It was after that debate that Governor John Baldacci asked 45 stakeholders (mainly state officials, transportation people, Searsport business owners, and conservationists) to create a stewardship plan for the island; this process ensured that no coal, LNG, or waste-incineration facilities will ever be sited at Sears Island.

It also spawned an agreement between the state Department of Transportation (which owns the island) and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust (a Topsham-based conservation organization) that places 600 acres of Sears Island in permanent conservation — and leaves the remaining 341 acres open for development. This is the deal that the Sierra Club is proud of. However, some eco-activists say the deal paves the way for cargo-port construction, which in turn would be ecologically harmful.

As the state’s Joint Use Planning Committee hammers out the details of this plan, members of Penobscot Bay Watch and Fair Play for Sears Island, along with some disgruntled Sierra Club members, are protesting what they call the “deal of shame.” Late last month, they held a mock burial for the Sierra Club to publicize their dismay. On Thursday and Friday of this week, they hope to gain more attention through a radio debate and a Searsport teach-in.

“Sierra Club is playing duck and cover in their support for industrial development on Sears Island,” Penobscot Bay Watch member Ron Huber wrote in an e-mail. He’s worried that the Sierra Club is “greasing the skids” for port development, and that environmentalists stand to “lose the whole island.”

But Joan Saxe, the Sierra Club Conservation Committee member who represented the club during the state’s Sears Island Planning Initiative process, says “we’ve never endorsed a port” on Sears Island. Instead, the club advocates building out the nearby Mack Point port on the mainland. (In a statement, Baldacci expressed a similar sentiment: “The agreement specifies that the remaining 341 acres could be suitable for marine port development but the agreement requires that a preference be given for complete build-out of Mack Point, as an alternative to a port on Sears Island.”)

Saxe is choosing to focus on the conservation victory: “We’re really excited that after 35 or so years of controversy, that we’ll create and codify a permanent conservation easement.” She also points out that no port plan has been proposed, and that any proposal would still have to go through the standard environmental permitting process.

Still, fellow Sierra Club Conservation Committee member Jody Spear — who is disappointed that she read about the deal in the newspaper, rather than in Sierra Club communications — calls the situation “a travesty of the whole environmental ethic” of those who have worked to protect Sears Island. She and others will debate the issue on WERU (89.9 and 102.9 FM) on Thursday morning from 10 to 11 am; activists will rally outside the Joint Use Planning Committee meeting on Friday. At that committee meeting (running from noon to 3 pm at the Searsport Congregational Church), there will also be an opportunity for public comment. Stay tuned.

Related: Sierra Club brings environmental mixer to, A field guide to activism in Rhode Island, Up Plum Creek without a paddle, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Nature and the Environment, U.S. Department of Transportation, Sierra Club,  More more >
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