Sunday, May 22, 2016

Talking "10 Things Every American Should Know" with Aspen Institute

I enjoyed speaking with recently with Aspen Institute's Eric Liu about American Nations, American Character, and ten things every American should know. Liu, who heads the institute's Citizenship and American Identity Program, featured the interview on the latest "Aspen Ideas To Go" podcast, which you can hear here.

For more on "10 Things Every American Should Know," check out this.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

North Woods Lawless II: From official denial to legislative hearings


My investigation of a controversial Maine Warden Service undercover operation and large-scale raid in the far northern Maine town of Allagash has gotten plenty of attention in the two weeks since it appeared, from personal slander from Maine Gov. Paul LePage to an announcement of legislative hearings on the issues raised in the piece. Having trouble keeping up? Here's a recap:

May 8: "North Woods Lawless" appears, with sidebars on past problems with MWS undercover operations, their success in improving routine interactions with the public and their senior brass's flaunting of public records law and the entire, Kafka-esque email chain between ourselves, the wardens, our attorney, their attorney at the Attorney General's office, and the AG's public records ombudsman, Brenda Kielty.

May 9: In the morning, Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville and co-chair of the legislative committee that oversees the wardens, tells me he is demanding answers from their boss, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock; he notes if he doesn't get answers, he may turn to another committee he sits on, Government Oversight, which has subpoena powers. I appear on WCSH-6 and WLBZ-2 to discuss the piece. At 5:30 that evening the wardens issue a short statement denouncing the piece as misleading (but without saying why), declaring that "the majority of Maine's law-abiding citizens" support the Allagash operation (without evidence), and promising a full response in article form in a few days. 

May 10: In the morning, Gov. LePage appears on a WVOM radio talk show, makes some slanderous statements about yours truly, proclaims the article to be a whole lot of nothing....and then proceeds to say how troubled he is by each and every major allegation and finding in the piece; LePage says his office is going to investigate.  Several lawmakers call for legislative investigations of the allegations in the story, including Judiciary Committee co-chair Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, whose committee oversees public records law. Former Sportsmen's Alliance of Maine head George Smith weighs in, as does the Press Herald/Kennebec Journal editorial board.

May 11: In the afternoon, Gov. LePage's communications director, Peter Steele contacts the Press Herald's Opinion Page Editor, Greg Kesitch, demanding he print a 2800 word response from the wardens in the next day's edition. "I will not accept a 3,000 word submission from anyone. I don't have the space and that's not what the opinion pages are for," Kesitch writes back. "If there are errors in the story you should communicate with the reporter and editor (copied here) to discuss corrections. The opinion pages is not where we correct errors of fact. I would be interested in a piece that defends the wardens' service policies, but that can be done in a regular length column." 


Steele doesn't respond, but shortly thereafter, Gov. LePage issues an official press release ranting against, yes, Colin Woodard and declaring the Allagash investigation to be "one of the most outrageous examples of the Portland Press Herald’s complete and total lack of journalistic principles." He then goes on to an official, fact-free rant. "Let’s be perfectly clear: Colin Woodard is not a journalist; he is an activist and a novelist who never lets the facts get in the way of his fictionalized stories. Sadly, Woodard is the kind of guy the media elite celebrate as a Pulitzer Prize-worthy author." (For those just joining the program: I am a journalist; I've never written a novel; I've never published a story which was found to be incorrect; and I've never won a Pulitzer Prize as an author (though I was a Pulitzer finalist for my journalism this year.))


Shortly thereafter, the Maine Warden Service issues their 2800 word response to "North Woods Lawless" which makes a number of false claims, claims things I (accurately) reported sources saying as being things I myself said, and puts forward some details of their side of the story -- details they refused to share in the months we were reporting the story. We respond that evening with a detailed point-by-point response to some of MWS' more blatant falsehoods.


May 12: I appear for an extended live interview with Ken and Mike's popular morning politics show on talk radio station WGAN, further setting the record straight.

May 13: The Press Herald reports allegations by several York County men who say they had nearly identical experiences as targets of another undercover investigation by the same warden operative at the center of the Allagash operation, Bill Livezey. Livezey, they claim, drank heavily and operated his vehicle while drunk. The story -- reported by Scott Dolan with additional reporting by me -- also revealed that a judge had admonished prosecutors for concealing Livezey's identity from defense attorneys, which prevented them from learning he had run into serious credibility problems in case involving a guide in Fryeburg; the judge had dismissed all charges against the one defendant who had taken his case to trial.


The Warden Service responds with a truly bizarre press release, one Mainers everywhere should read. In it, the wardens purport to speak for all the people of Maine, and denounce the story, saying that while it had "contributions by Colin Woodard" it "was produced by a new author, perhaps as another attempt at credibility." The Press Herald, the law enforcement agency declares, "has taken on a personality that no longer reflects Maine values. Maine people are different. We have strong core values. We respect our friends and neighbors. We tell the truth." The statement then goes on to make three substantive points, all of them untruthful: that the story didn't quote the judge in the Fryeburg case's fuller statement (it did, further down the piece); that by 5pm the paper hadn't reported a shooting incident in New Hampshire (it had, at 8:03 that morning) and that state police had issued a cease and disist order against one of our sources that afternoon for harassing a warden by telephone (which would be rather a strange thing to do, since said source had started his sentence at the York County Jail at 8:30 that morning and could make no outgoing calls for the next 22 days.) The wardens then refused to answer questions about the latter incident.


May 15: Press Herald staff columnist Bill Nemitz weighs in.


May 19: Lawmakers announce they will hold legislative hearings into the conduct of Warden Service undercover operations, with Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport saying "Folks deserve to have an understanding, to know what transpired." House Speaker Mike Eves, D-North Berwick, promises a "thorough inquiry." Sen. Davis says he will also call public records ombudsperson Brenda Kielty to testify about the public records side of the story. The wardens say they will cooperate. The hearings will be held in the next two weeks, legislative leaders say.


PS - There's now a landing page for "North Woods Lawless" at the Press Herald.













Friday, May 20, 2016

Lessons from Denver's transit triumph


My latest installment for POLITICO Magazine's "What Works" series posted last night, and it's on Denver's ambitious, nearly-completed effort to build a region-wide rail transit system in what has been a fast growing, auto-dependent city.

Denver did a number of remarkable things to make it happen: foster cooperation across a vast metropolitan region, convince a skeptical public to increase taxes to build it, and when budget and expense forecasts collapsed in the face of the 2007-2008 financial collapse, create the nation's first large-scale transit public-private partnership to get much of the system built.

But the biggest lesson learned: the greatest benefit of the system isn't relieving traffic congestion, it's the revolution in land use the stations and lines catalyze. Denver had to discover this along the way, but other cities contemplating major expansions can take advantage of what they learned.

Thanks to Colorado Public Radio's "Colorado Matters" for having me on the program yesterday, hours before the piece was even published. You can hear the interview online here.

This is my third "What Works" piece as a POLITICO Magazine contributing editor. The others were on how Des Moines went from dull to cool and how Manchester, New Hampshire turned its vast 19th century millyard to spinning high-tech gold. Where am I off to next? Hint: it's where Greater Appalachia once spread over "the Rhine."

Monday, May 9, 2016

North Woods Lawless


An investigation I've been working on for the past six months and more went to print in the Maine Sunday Telegram yesterday: "North Woods Lawless," which probes a controversial two-year undercover investigation and dramatic raid by the Maine Warden Service in the remote northern Maine town of Allagash. The raid was filmed by the Animal Planet television series "North Woods Law," leading some in the town to suspect the wardens of playing to the cameras.

In the story, residents allege the undercover agent padded evidence, invented incidents, and gave alcohol to suspects. We also report that the agent provided guns, ammunition, transportation, and a searchlight to a man he was enticing to night poach on nine nights, an that by his own account the agent shot and killed the first deer. Wardens also improperly seized a 64-year old woman's home canned fruits an vegetables and, by her account, never returned most of them; after all charges were dropped against her, wardens called her seasonal employer, an event that resulted in her not being rehired.

Meanwhile, the Warden Service refused to be interviewed, canceling an in-person appointment hours after scheduling it, and ultimately refused to answer written questions as well, referring all contact through their attorney, an assistant Attorney General. They also spurned public records law, failing to provide their full correspondence about area filming with the producers of "North Woods Law" and leading to multiple complaints to the state's public records ombudsman, who is awkwardly also an assistant Attorney General. We posted the entire email chain of our six-months-and-counting effort to secure compliance online for your enjoyment.

The story package also includes two other sidebars, one on apparently successful reforms of day-to-day operations by Chief Warden Joel Wilkinson, the other on the service's history of undercover operations controversies.

In tomorrow's Portland Press Herald, I have this follow up story, wherein the state senator who co-chairs the warden's legislative oversight committee says he is demanding answers from the warden's boss, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, intimating that he might call for a formal investigation if he is not satisfied with their response. There's also a statement from the Wardens -- posted at 5:30 this evening -- insisting the article is inaccurate and also, strangely, that the "majority of law-abiding Maine citizens and visitors" are "wholeheartedly" in support of their actions in the Allagash. They promise not to answer questions, but rather to present an article of their own, which I expect they will want the news media to publish.

Meanwhile, the story has been picked up by the Associated Press, Maine Public Broadcasting, and Maine's largest television broadcasts, NBC affiliates WCSH-6 (Portland) an WLBZ-2 (Bangor), who had me as a guest this evening.

This story, as we say at the Press Herald, will be updated.

[Update: 5/21/16: A day-by-day, blow-by-blow update of the past two weeks of "North Woods Lawless" can be found here.]


Saturday, May 7, 2016

Speaking on the crisis in the world's oceans and Gulf of Maine, Portland, Me, May 12

I'll be speaking about the crisis in the world's oceans and in the Gulf of Maine at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland this coming Thursday, May 12.

The event, which kicks off at 7pm, is entitled "Mayday: Crisis in the World's Oceans from Antarctica to the Gulf of Maine" and keys off my global reporting on the oceans crisis, my first book, Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas, and the recent Press Herald series "Mayday," which was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting.

The good news is the event is free and open to the public. The bad news is you need to RSVP, it's already filled to capacity, and there's a waiting list. But give it a shot! It'll be fun, and you know some people won't show up. I'll even be signing books afterward.

Can't make it? I'll be doing another talk more or less on this subject at the Wells National Estuarine Reserve in Wells, Maine on June 16.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Edgar Beem gives me a big shout out


Edgar Allen Beem, longtime Maine journalist and commentator, was kind enough to plug my work in his column in this week's Forecaster newspapers, a chain of weeklies serving Greater Portland and the western Midcoast.

"Colin Woodard is Maine’s top journalist," he writes in the lede of this week's Universal Notebook. "To be more accurate, he’s Maine’s leading freelance intellectual, not only reporting on current events for the Portland newspapers, but researching and writing whole books about the political geography of America in attempt to understand what is happening to our country."

Beem goes on to praise American Nations and American Character, for which I'm grateful.

Thanks, Ed, for the attention and high praise. My five-year old came home from school yesterday and told me his teachers brought a copy into class because "you're famous, Dad."






Thursday, May 5, 2016

Alaska, Hawaii and the American Nations

Of all the criticisms of the American Nations paradigm I field from people who have not actually read American Nations -- but rather seen the Washington Post or Business Insider summary of the book -- the "why didn't you include Alaska/Hawaii 'cause they're part of America" one is perhaps the most droll.

Yes, I'm aware that Alaska and Hawaii are in the United States, and also that South Florida is as well, and that Newfoundland is part of Canada. As readers of the book know, all of those areas save Alaska are not part of the eleven regional cultures whose history is described in great detail in the book. It's not that they're "not part of the U.S./Canada/North America," it's that for practical purposes it didn't make sense to relate their entire history, given the small and historically recent role they've played in the story of the U.S. and Canada, the real subjects of the book. (For those who are curious, Newfoundland (a self-governing British colony until after World War II) is an Anglo-Irish culture of its own, one predating the other Euro-American nations on the Eastern half of the continent); South Florida is part of a maritime Spanish colonial area with an impressive history all its own, and a culture distinct from El Norte; Hawaii (which joined the U.S. after World War II) is part of the Greater Polynesian cultural region.

Alaska is treated in the book, as it was colonized or settled by the regional cultures American Nations explores. It's shared between a Left Coast area (Juneau and pan handle), a Far Western one (in Central Alaska) and the area still dominated, like Greenland and much of the Canadian Far North, by First Nation.

Thanks to Will Mitchell and Nathan Broaddus at Portland, Maine's NBT Solutions for creating the map from which the image above is drawn.