Twenty years ago the people of Maine committed an act of astonishing bravery. Almost on faith, they overwhelmingly approved a $35-million bond issue - the largest non-transportation bond ever offered - to underwrite a groundbreaking program dedicated to protecting the best of Maine. No one had ever done anything like it before anywhere, and even the people who proposed it weren't altogether sure how it should work.
They were fast learners. In the first five years alone, the Land for Maine's Future (LMF) program acquired such landmarks as Mount Kineo on Moosehead Lake, the Bold Coast of Cutler in Washington County, the Kennebunk Plains in southern Maine, and Nahmakanta Township in the North Woods. In the years since, fueled by an additional $60 million in bonds, LMF has preserved more than 440,000 acres of forest, farm, and shorefront for the people of Maine, from Mooselookmeguntic Lake to Mount Agamenticus to Cundy Harbor. Along the way it helped build and strengthen Maine's phenomenal network of local land trusts, forced conservationists to adopt a realistic philosophy about what was worth saving and why, and helped pioneer innovative new conservation strategies.
With more than 147 projects under its belt, LMF is down to its last few dollars, and Mainers are once again being asked to approve new funding. The November ballot includes $17 million for land preservation and $3 million for working waterfront projects administered through LMF. Those most familiar with the program point out that all the forces that led to LMF's creation still exist, stronger than ever, and there are still special places in Maine that require protection if the state's residents, now, and in the future, are to benefit from them.
"It's a government program that works," explains Mark DesMeules, former LMF director and currently executive director of the Damariscotta River Association. "How cool is that?"
Very cool, actually. LMF's involvement in a conservation campaign is the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for other donors. Working with willing sellers and a strict rating system that protects it from political pressures, it has never attracted the kind of controversy or adverse attention that other land-protection projects have seen in recent years.
Perhaps as a result, in every election where LMF funding has stood alone, it has never failed to win approval by two-to-one margins from enthusiastic Maine voters.
"The areas we've saved are incredible, and there are so many more like them out there," notes Tim Glidden, LMF's current director.
And it all happened because a governor's task force ignored its original instructions and went its own way.
It's difficult to imagine today, but there was a time when Mainers didn't worry about protecting the state's natural assets. Shorefront still sold by the acre instead of the front foot, and condominiums were something you saw in Manhattan, not Maine. If some natural wonder was threatened, such as Popham Beach or Acadia or Katahdin, a wealthy benefactor would step in and protect it. Besides, Maine was scenery rich and money poor.
"You look back thirty-five, forty years, and the common reaction then would have been, 'What do you need to save that for? There's lots more just like it,' " says Clinton "Bill" Townsend, the Skowhegan lawyer who has been involved with just about every Maine environmental organization and every Maine environmental fight since 1959. "But pretty soon after that, it became pretty obvious that there wasn't more like it."
Alarms started ringing in the late 1970s as land values, first in southern Maine and then up the coast, started doubling and then doubling again. Condos were springing up in Wells by the dozen, summer cottages on Sebago Lake suddenly started coming with six-figure price tags, and the Patten Corporation of Vermont was buying up large tracts of land and turning them into many small tracts of land for sale through ads in the Wall Street Journal. European financiers began trading millions of acres of North Woods forestland like baseball cards.
In 1985, then-Governor Joseph Brennan formed the Governor's Commission on Outdoor Recreation. Everyone expected the task force to focus on access issues - user fees and gates in the North Woods, the increase in posted land in southern Maine. But several members, including lawyer (and later governor) Angus King, then-Representative Patrick McGowan, L.L. Bean CEO Leon Gorman, and Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson, went well beyond the original boundaries. They recommended a statewide public land acquisition program financed with a bond issue.
"We had the lowest percentage of publicly owned land in the United States, something like just over 4 percent," McGowan recalls. "Plus, there was a debate going on within the legislature. There had been a lot of new regulations about what you could do with your lands, especially in the North Woods. So conservative landowners were saying 'If you want to regulate my land so I can't use it, why don't you just buy it?'
"And I thought that was a helluva idea."
McGowan was a ten-year veteran of the legislature and a member of the Appropriations Committee, and he agreed to sponsor the bond issue to finance the new program. He mentioned his plan to Bill Townsend.
Townsend and McGowan jovially disagree on the exact details of the encounter, but in Townsend's version: "Pat said, 'I'm going to put in a $5 million bond issue.' And I just exploded. I didn't know what I was saying until I heard the words come out of my mouth. I said, 'Pat, it should be $50 million,' and he looked at me and said, 'You're right.' " (McGowan insists he had to talk Townsend down from an outrageous $300 million.)
In any case, once past the legislature's negotiating process, a $35-million question went out to Maine voters in November 1987. It won by an overwhelming margin of 246,257 to 133,017. Another $50 million was approved in November 1999, by an astonishing 282,512 to 128,972, and a further $10 million in 2005 by similar margins.
In the years since, the Land for Maine's Future board, made up of six public members and the heads of five government agencies - the Departments of Agriculture, Conservation, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Marine Resources, and the State Planning Office - has developed a hard-won reputation for being impartial and tough-minded about how it spends the money entrusted to it by the voters. "As a land conservation program it's probably one of the best in the country," McGowan, now commissioner of the Department of Conservation, says.
Yet in the early days no one was quite sure how it should operate. Nothing like the Land for Maine's Future had ever been attempted before - anywhere. Maine was breaking new ground. "I think we learned as we went along," Townsend says in retrospect.
"I think people respect the integrity of the LMF process and value it," observes Glidden, the current director. "As that reputation has developed, people realize we have a vested interest in sustaining it. I also give credit to the series of governors who have supported the program from the beginning. They have not attempted to leverage the process, none of them."
Glidden mentions the Katahdin Lake project, which generated considerable controversy last year as the state negotiated its acquisition [Down East, July 2006]. "Katahdin Lake was very important to Governor Baldacci," Glidden explains. "Did he want to examine whether it would be a project for LMF? Absolutely. But after examining that option, did it feel like a good fit? Not really. There were other ways that project was going to have to happen. It had to go through the legislature anyway. That seemed a more appropriate strategy."
Each proposal brought to the board goes through a demanding screening and is ranked on a two-hundred-point scale. "It's a rigorous process that really makes you look into the future and question your planning and expectations," explains Stephen Keith, the former director of the tiny Downeast Lakes Land Trust. "But it also gives you the confidence to perhaps shoot a little - or a lot - higher than you originally thought."
In partnership with several other conservation organizations, the trust successfully protected 342,000 acres of forestland and sixty lakes and ponds in eastern Maine [Down East, May 2006] with a $30-million fundraising campaign that included $1.5 million from LMF.
"The impact of that donation was huge," Keith explains. "It was the largest gift the board had ever given to an individual land trust. There was a level of credibility that came with it that helped immensely."
Nor does Maureen Hoffman leave any room for misunderstanding when she talks about the impact the LMF program has had on the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association, a small land trust she leads in Lincoln County. "Massive," she says instantly. "We have major projects that wouldn't have happened without LMF help. That money allowed us to leverage other grants that were approved largely because LMF thought our project was important enough to support."
"We're frequently the biggest single contributor to a project," Glidden notes, "but we're almost never the bulk of the project. If we're into a million-dollar project for, say, two hundred thousand dollars, they've got a lot more money to raise, but the fact that LMF has decided that this is something worthwhile is a huge benefit to fund raising. That's a corollary to our reputation for being a nonpolitical straight-up effective organization."
The Sheepscot Valley group won $188,000, part of a $350,000 campaign to buy some seventy acres of land along the Marsh River. "We had big eyes," Hoffman explains.
The scale of Hoffman's projects, compared to Keith's campaign, says much about the differences the program faces as it tries to work with conservation efforts throughout the state. "Not only does the money not go as far in southern Maine or along the coast, but the parcels are smaller to begin with," Glidden explains.
For many years the program bought land outright and transferred it to state ownership. Gradually, though, the board learned to partner with other organizations and use other conservation strategies, such as easements, to stretch its money. "Since 2000 the proportion of the acreage we're protecting as easements has gone way up," Glidden offers. "Often the easement is held by the state, but the legislature changed the law in 1999 and now we can also support ownership by non-state entities, such as land trusts." Glidden says more than half of LMF's protected lands are now in easements.
"It took us a little time to learn how to stretch our dollars, how to get other people to pitch in," Townsend recalls.
With so much good work behind it, is the Land for Maine's Future still needed? If anything, its supporters say, it's needed more than ever. The legislature recently expanded the program's responsibilities to include preserving working waterfront. Meanwhile, land ownership patterns in the North Woods are leading indicators that once isolated forestlands face unprecedented development pressure.
"When we started in 1999, a lot of people up here told us, 'Why bother? None of that development is going to happen here,' " says Keith. "Within three years that changed and land prices quadrupled."
"Maintaining public access is a major focus now," Glidden adds. "It's just a matter of time, and the way we'll start losing things will not be predictable."
"We absolutely could not have accomplished what we've done so far, or what we hope to do in the future, without the Land for Maine's Future money," insists Gail White, past president of the Orono Land Trust. "Yard sales and cookies and pies only go so far."
"We need this program to protect the values that keep Maine from being like every other place," adds Keith. "There's no other place like this on earth."
For a list of Land for Maine's Future projects, go to: www.maine.gov