ISLESBORO — The fate of Sears Island is a proxy for the fate of Penobscot Bay. Every few years, someone or some group proposes a grand development plan for Sears Island. Most recently, tugboat pilot Capt. David Gelinas lamented DCP Midstream’s failure to develop a liquefied petroleum gas terminal on Sears Island (“Maine Voices: Fuel crisis shows missed opportunity,” Jan. 26).

Yet even as the epic battle over the future of Sears Island continues, the Penobscot Bay natural resource-based economy steadily sustains. Why would anyone jeopardize Sears Island for a phantom energy project or a fantasy port?

In 1971, a proposal to build an oil refinery on Sears Island drew national attention and a hard line between two sides – for or against.

When the refinery proposal failed, Central Maine Power Co. thought Sears Island would be an outstanding location for a nuclear power plant. Geology and democracy dictated otherwise, so that plan was scuttled in favor of plans to build a coal-fired generating plant there in the early 1980s. Residents of the region wouldn’t have the acid-spewing thing, and, as planning costs soared, CMP’s ambitions plunged.

In the later 1980s, Maine’s own Department of Transportation wanted to build a giant cargo port on Sears Island and export unprocessed wood chips. The state’s carpenters union and a whole host of others objected, though the public reason given for withdrawing that proposal was the threat to the island’s eelgrass beds.

Still, the state of Maine purchased Sears Island in 1997 after years of controversy, including illegal filling of wetlands, and with no plan to develop a port. Proposals to build a natural gas terminal and container port followed and failed later between 2000 and 2010.

Leading up to that purchase in 1997, then-Gov. Angus King said, “This is an unusual piece of real estate. It is the largest undeveloped island on the coast of the United States. I see potential for it as a park or a port or both.”

While outsized industrial schemes rise and fall, Penobscot Bay’s unique environmental assets support a marine-based economy of fishing, sailing and tourism and have done so for thousands of years.This marine-based economy depends on the health of the bay, not simply its existence. Preserving the ecological integrity of the bay is more than a matter of aesthetics. It is a matter of economics.

Mammoth corporate industrial plans for Sears Island and Penobscot Bay are incompatible with lobstering, sailing, fishing, tourism, second-home construction and other small-scale, local components of our robust way of life. Development proposals for Sears Island and for the region cannot remain oblivious to their far-reaching economic, environmental and ethical consequences.

As the Brookings Institute’s Bruce Katz said last year when asked about appropriate investments in Maine, “First and foremost, remember what makes you special.”

In 2005, economist David Vail pointed out that 44 million tourists spend more than $5.5 billion a year here and that “all Maine tourism is dependent directly on the state’s outstanding natural attractions or indirectly on the state’s natural and cultural heritage.” Sears Island is the jewel of Penobscot Bay; common sense dictates that its future embrace and build on this economic fact.

The story of Penobscot Bay is a story of human interaction with a rich and productive but often harsh landscape. The Penobscot Bay story is geological and sociological, part marine science and part economics. It is a story of first peoples and Europeans, on land and on sea, living out the drama that is Maine.

Sears Island is the Penobscot Bay story. It would be a grave disservice to the citizens of Maine to steal away diverse economic possibilities for Sears Island and instead turn over exclusive development rights to a special interest and declining sector of our economy that threatens to destroy what makes us special and keeps our economy sustainable. Looking forward, we must make the right choices to keep Penobscot Bay alive for future generations.

— Special to the Press Herald