If Bill Pepin failed to grasp what my 11-year-old daughter and her classmates have known since the third grade, perhaps I could muster a little sympathy for his situation.
If he believed in a fiction in which each parcel of property were a self-contained ecosystem and whatever he did on his own land would have no impact on the broader environment, maybe I could appreciate Pepin's obvious distain for environmental regulations.
But Pepin is well beyond elementary school. He runs a local TV station, has spent his adult life in business, and has acquired enough financial wherewithal to buy a big chunk of land on which he plans to build his dream home—and enough political yank to yoke up nearly a dozen area legislators and set out to destroy policies designed to protect endangered species.
I think Pepin knows that his 36-acre lot in Hampden is connected in myriad ways to the larger world. I think he's aware that air and water and wildlife don't know anything about property rights and can't be confined by artificial boundaries drawn on maps by human beings. That's why Pepin's personal crusade against the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife's Natural Habitat and Endangered Species Program strikes me as selfish and petulant. I find his efforts to portray himself as an environmentalist disingenuous and insulting. Pepin offers his very desire to build in Hampden rather than continue living in Springfield as proof of his love of nature—a ridiculous claim given his assault on habitat protections.
As Valley Advocate Senior Writer Maureen Turner first reported nearly three years ago ("Fighting for Habitat," Nov. 29, 2009), Pepin began his fight after the state designated his Hampden property as habitat for the Eastern box turtle; after losing two internal NHESP appeals, Pepin initiated a lawsuit and brought his concerns to local lawmakers. As Turner reported last week ("Endangering Species," July 26, 2012), the so-called "Pepin Bill" has wide support among Western Mass. legislators, "including a number who generally receive high marks for their pro-environmental records. [Critics] have questioned whether legislative backers of the bill are motivated by the fact that the man behind the effort just happens to manage the top-rated news station in the region—something Pepin and lawmakers both denied."
Whatever motivated 11 area legislators—Sens. Gale Candaras, Michael Knapik and Jim Welch and Reps. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, Michael Kane, Joseph Wagner, Brian Ashe, Sean Curran, Don Humason, Angelo Puppolo and Ben Swan—it clearly wasn't a desire for thoughtful reassessment of the state's endangered species protections. While sponsors attempt to paint the proposed law as an act to protect the environment while ensuring the due process rights of property owners, lawmakers must realize that it is designed only to cripple NHESP by imposing untenable recordkeeping and reporting demands on the underfunded agency, effectively gutting the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.
In fact, the publicity campaign against NHESP, whether in the words of Pepin or the videos disseminated by the group Victims of Natural Heritage, isn't about the environment at all.
Pepin has complained that NHESP is a "rogue agency" that acts like "a banana republic of Central America." As he told the Advocate in 2009, "I can usually tell when I'm negotiating with someone whether it's a sincere negotiation or not. ...It became apparent to me that [NHESP was] running circles around me..."
On the website VictimsofNaturalHeritage.com, the complaints go beyond one man's bruised ego and sense of entitlement. "Tell Natural Heritage we need jobs, not overreaching regulation," reads the headline as we see a dramatization of men in hard hats complaining when a construction job they were working on is closed due to an endangered species regulation.
Similarly, the lawmakers who support the Pepin Bill blithely sidestep the basic issue of protecting habitat and take the position that NHESP stands in the way of job-creating development. The fact that four of five projects reviewed by NHESP proceed unaltered, or that the rampant development of the last 20 years happened with the NHESP process in place, isn't enough to convince the legislators to take a more careful approach to reform.
Pepin isn't the first businessman to complain about regulation, but neither is he just another businessman. As the general manager at WWLP-Channel 22, Pepin has unusual power to influence public opinion. Sadly, Pepin has allowed stories related to NHESP that are nothing more than anti-regulation propaganda to appear on WWLP's website.
I understand the temptation to fight the government and use whatever tactical advantage you possess. But Pepin's attacks on NHESP are, in a word, unseemly. His continuing effort to push reckless laws in order to serve his very petty agenda damages not just his own reputation, but the credibility of Channel 22.