By Roger Bowen
As this newspaper reported, the citizens of Gouldsboro in their annual town meeting voted not to approve a citizens’ initiative that would have limited consumer fireworks use to July 4 and Dec. 31. Based on a voice vote, the moderator ruled from the dais that those opposed to the restrictions were in the majority.
Since the June meeting, a good number of citizens have contacted me to say they regretted not calling for a paper ballot because, in retrospect, they feel that the measure would have passed easily had the moderator not been fooled by the naysayers shouting from the rear of the room. The next warrant item did pass by raised ballot, renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, by a 10-vote margin despite the loud naysayers.
To the extent they can be summarized, the arguments against fireworks restrictions boiled down to anger that Gouldsboro is becoming a “nanny government” whose regulations and policies restrict individual freedoms, and they would have none of that.
The arguments favoring restrictions that the putative majority either overlooked or simply did not accept as compelling include: 1) fireworks are made of dangerous heavy metals, dioxins and lead that leave a trail of pollution, not to mention the noise pollution that frightens wild and domestic animals, some vets suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and residents who live in our remote town precisely because it is quiet and peaceful; 2) other coastal towns, such as Bar Harbor, Cranberry Isles, Belfast, Brunswick, Mount Desert, North Haven and Rockland, have restricted or banned fireworks, with Acadia National Park, which occupies much of the Schoodic Peninsula, enforcing an outright ban; 3) fireworks cause forest fires — seven in Maine alone between July 2017 and March 2018 — and in a state where thousands of jobs are forestry-related, forest fires are not a good idea; and 4) for the 60 years prior to 2012, fireworks in all of Maine were banned except when used for special events by professionals who know how to shoot them off without injuring themselves or others.
Other states where local economies depend on the forestry industry — such “red states” as Utah, Idaho and, since 2016, Wisconsin — have taken policy measures to address wildfires caused by fireworks. Wisconsin requires payment for the cost of extinguishing forest fires caused by fireworks from those who set them off. Utah has banned fireworks statewide but permits towns to set their own rules. Idaho reported that a single forest fire, in June 2018, destroyed 2,500 acres of forest and cost the state $341,000 to extinguish and boasts tighter regulations on consumer fireworks than does Maine. Many states require special permits for using consumer fireworks, both “blue” and “red,” which is, I believe, evidence that attitudes toward fireworks are, or should be, nonpartisan. Similarly Gouldsboro requires “burn permits” which seem to be accepted by residents of all political stripes.
But quite apart from the damage to commercial forestry that fireworks can cause, fireworks serve no useful purpose. Making noise on the ground and in the air provides at best a momentary thrill for the users and spectators, but also causes stress, anxiety and even fear among those living near enough to hear the dreadful booms. Fireworks, in brief, are not simply about individual freedom of their users but also about how they negatively affect neighbors. When fireworks are shot off over the ocean, as happens here all too often, the trace metals and poisons get into the ocean food chain, not a good idea for Gouldsboro whose economy depends heavily on lobster fishing.
Ronald Reagan famously said that “Government exists to protect us from each other” and “not to protect us from ourselves.” Presumably Reagan opposed mandatory seat belt laws, food labeling, age restrictions on smoking cigarettes (and, of course, marijuana) and drinking alcohol, cycling helmets, special taxes on sugary soft drinks, etc. Regardless, all such policies and laws intentionally try to protect individuals from themselves, and thereby curb their freedoms, but legitimately because taxpayers may incur the hospital costs to injured practitioners as well as the costs in damage to nature and community that negligent individuals can cause through irresponsible behavior. In the end, fireworks are about public health and safety, about environmental damage, and about the rights of individuals to enjoy peace and quiet.
I expect the citizens’ initiative to restrict fireworks will once again be on the town warrant in 2019 unless town officials take decisive action before then to propose an ordinance that restricts the use of fireworks. Alternatively, the town might urge all boom-boom fans to consolidate resources, hire a professional, and hold a fireworks event for all enthusiasts at the new town public park if, that is, they first receive permission from all residents living within a quarter-mile of the park.
Roger Bowen served two terms as a Gouldsboro selectman and for the past dozen years has served as director of the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows.