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February 28, 2011

Ever drive down a country road in Maine, roll down your window and listen to thousands of calls from small frogs? These peepers fill the woods with this unmistakable song of spring. Their mating calls result in vernal pools being populated by these amphibians as the snow melts. The frogs, along with vernal pool salamanders, are a major part of the biodiversity in Maine woods. They provide food for great blue herons, eagles, egrets, foxes, skunks, raccoons, and minks, weasels, and even bear and moose.

They are part and parcel of Maine’s quality of life. Where subdivisions and strip malls have moved into communities, theses sounds of spring have disappeared. That’s the threat proposed by the LePage administration that could permanently damage Maine’s valued quality of life.

Vernal pools are small bodies of water that fill up with snowmelt and spring runoff, and often dry up by the end of summer.

“We want to address vernal pools,” said LePage in January at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn campus. “If they are intermittent and dry up after rainfalls, I am going to recommend we ignore them.”

That means repealing the legislation that currently protects them from a developer’s bulldozer damaging them. The law protecting Maine’s vernal pools does not prohibit development; it simply requires that it be done in a way that is the least damaging to vernal pools.

“Once you pave over a vernal pool you can’t get it back. Once you develop an area that is a bird habitat you can’t get it back,” said David Littell, former commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection under the Baldacci administration. “Some realtors claimed that regulations were devaluing properties, when in fact a piece of land that has protection regulations on it will be worth more in the near future.”

The legislative Natural Resources Committee unanimously endorsed the vernal protection law, when the bill came up in 2005. In 2007, Maine adopted legislation to regulate a subset of vernal pools that meet certain biological and hydrological criteria as Significant Wildlife Habitat.

The protection law requires a state inspection of the vernal pool before a developer can move forward. Since 2009, to help the state map out vernal pools, thus shortening the time developers have to wait for approval, citizens from 13 counties have been mapping the pools. Every spring they measure the abundance of egg clumps left by wood frogs and salamanders. This Audubon Society program, the Maine Municipal Mapping and Assessment Project, has become a community event.

The program works with Maine communities to cut back the time and funds it takes for permitting by conducting free vernal pool surveys, and it gives towns critical information for their development plans.

The amount of time it takes for a project to be permitted has been dramatically reduced, because of this citizen-run project, yet some developers are still complaining.

At the same time, several Northeastern states are taking steps to protect vernal pools, which scientists have declared are biologically significant.

The sounds of spring from peepers give Maine an advantage over states that have lost this valued asset. And for thousands of residents, they can define the season with hope.