Lay of the Land

canoe on land next to lake and mountians
Photograph by Benjamin Williamson

[dropcap letter=”W”]hen we sat down with Martha Stewart to plan the April 2017 special issue, she raised the question: who’s leading the effort to protect undeveloped land in Maine in 2017? Turns out, it’s a timely question. As the game-changing Land for Maine’s Future program observes its 30th anniversary, the state’s land conservation scene is at a crossroads. Murray Carpenter surveys the field.

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At some point, many Mainers have had the unsettling experience of discovering that a parcel of land on which they liked to hike, fish, hunt, or ski has been posted or developed. The Bangor Daily News once summarized the problem thusly: “Because land prices are being bid up by developers and by big outside money, Maine people are being pushed out of the market . . . [and] squeezed off the land that they or their neighbors once owned and to which they had traditional access.”

Those lines could have been written yesterday, but they come from an editorial published in 1987, voicing support for an ambitious plan to conserve public lands and access. The campaign was called Citizens for Maine Heritage, and it was led by a telegenic, civic-minded entrepreneur who’d never held public office, a fellow named Angus King. At the time, houses and condo communities were sprouting like knotweed all across the state, while tensions flared over access to industrial timberlands in the North Woods. Now Maine’s junior U.S. senator, King remembers passing a condo development in the Sebago region and suddenly envisioning how Maine might look like without a major push for land conservation. He realized, he says today, that development threatened Maine’s very “sense of place.”

The land conservation movement in Maine in 2017 is a different animal than in ’87, and in recent years, the Land for Maine’s Future program has ground to a near-halt.

Voters easily passed the $35 million bond that King was advocating for, and the undertaking it funded became known as the Land for Maine’s Future program. In 1999, voters approved another $50 million bond, and LMF has since been replenished with periodic smaller bonds. Over the last 30 years, the program has funded the conservation of more than 600,000 acres in Maine. In its first decade, it allowed for the protection of gems like Grand Lake Stream, Mount Kineo, Scarborough Beach, the Rangeley River, and Cutler’s Bold Coast, plus large parcels like the 28,000 acres surrounding Nahmakanta Lake. Between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, LMF made its money go even further, requiring matching funds for each project and investing in conservation easements (rather than buying land outright). LMF dollars helped launch landscape-scale conservation deals along the St. John River, in the Down East region, and southwest of Baxter State Park. In the 2000s, LMF segued into protecting working farms and waterfronts, and most recently, it’s helped provide access for hunters and protect deer-wintering areas.

But the land conservation movement in Maine in 2017 is a different animal than in ’87, and in recent years, LMF has ground to a near-halt, thanks to opposition from Governor Paul LePage. With the once-robust program’s profile dwindling, advocates say land conservation in Maine is in a period of transition. Thirty years since we embraced Land for Maine’s Future, who are the players looking out for land for Maine’s future?

[dropcap letter=”K”]ate Dempsey, executive director of The Nature Conservancy, works out of a Brunswick office overlooking the Androscoggin River. On her wall is a jumbo map of Maine, with protected areas highlighted. It’s a map that’s changed a lot in the last 30 years.

Back in the ’80s, TNC was one of just a handful of land conservation groups in Maine with a professional staff. These days, Dempsey points out, the state has a robust network of more than 80 local and regional land trusts, and although TNC often acts in partnership with these trusts, local groups do a lot of the heavy lifting. What’s more, Dempsey says, the land trust community views conservation more broadly than 30 years ago. The mission is about more than simply buying and conserving land. “You want projects driven by the community,” Dempsey says. “This work needs to meet multiple community needs.”

Dempsey cites TNC’s long-term commitment to the Millinocket area, still reeling from the closure of its paper mills. “As a major landowner,” she says, “we’re committed to the region, to not only having one of the world’s most beautiful places open for multiple uses, in the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area, but also to our obligation to make a difference in the greater Katahdin region.” For example, TNC has recently sponsored a community revitalization speaker series and lent its cartography expertise to create a map for the Millinocket Marathon.

An attorney with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Catherine Johnson monitors land patterns in the North Woods and legislative action affecting the region, and she agrees that conservation is in a fundamentally different era now than in the ’80s. For starters, there’s no marquee bogeyman. Back then, the public was stirred to action by the machinations of high-profile, sometimes shifty out-of-state developers (like Vermont’s Patten Corporation, which eventually agreed to a settlement after allegations of dishonest sales practices). In the early 2000s, it was multinational Plum Creek Timber Company that ignited the conservation community by proposing huge subdivisions in the Moosehead Lake region.

“There’s no one like that now,” Johnson says. “What we’re into now is a death by a thousand cuts — a house here and a house there.” Today, one of her biggest worries is that the state’s Land Use Planning Commission might loosen regulations, allowing more small-scale development.

Other significant changes in land ownership patterns are even less apparent, Johnson warns. “Thirty years ago, most of the North Woods was owned by a dozen landowners or fewer, mostly large corporations. And now, at last count, I came up with about 100 landowners who each own 10,000 acres or more.” The land base, in other words, is increasingly fragmented.

One conspicuous example of this is the dissolution of Great Northern Paper. Thirty years ago, GNP owned two million acres; now, the remnant of that company owns just 300,000. The rest has been sold to companies like New Brunswick–based energy and transportation giant Irving (now the state’s largest landowner) and smaller private investors. It was former GNP lands at the heart of the state’s most contentious and headline-making recent conservation effort: Burt’s Bees founder and philanthropist Roxanne Quimby’s successful push to establish Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

[dropcap letter=”T”]he culmination of a nearly 20-year campaign, Quimby’s gift to the National Park Service totaled 87,500 acres — about twice the size of Acadia National Park — and the monument’s creation last summer was a reminder of just how little federally protected land Maine has. Even after its designation, just 1.5 percent of Maine land is administered by the feds, compared to 8 percent in Vermont, 14 percent in New Hampshire, and 27 percent nationwide. In both size and intent, Quimby’s donation hearkens back to the early 20th century, when large-scale land conservation in Maine was reliant on the largesse of patrician benefactors — Governor Percival Baxter was the motive force (and primary donor) behind Baxter State Park, while blue-blooded George Dorr catalyzed Acadia with support from, among others, John D. Rockefeller Jr.

More recently, a couple of billionaires have racked up enough Maine land to make Quimby look like a dabbler. In 2011, Colorado cable mogul John Malone purchased more than a million acres in the state, nudging him past Ted Turner to become the nation’s largest individual landowner. Last year, a foundation called Tall Timber Trust, linked to Subway founder (and South Portland native) Peter Buck, bought 300,000 acres, bringing its total Maine holdings to some 800,000. Buck and Malone are “great landowners,” says The Nature Conservancy’s Dempsey. TNC has done a couple of land deals with Tall Timber, including a land swap in the St. John River region, and Malone formerly sat on the national organization’s board of directors.

But Johnson, of NRCM, isn’t taking anything for granted. “The land that Buck and Malone own, it’s tempting to think of it as conservation land, because they aren’t industrial, commercial timber owners,” she says, “but there’s no long-term conservation security on the land, even if the owners seem to be conservation minded.”

Tim Glidden, president of Maine Coast Heritage Trust, sees the acquisition and designation of the national monument as a singular event rather than the start of a trend. “I don’t expect the future of land conservation to fall back into the laps of a small number of well-heeled, generous folks,” he says, “back to the age of Rockefellers and Baxters, because I think the culture of land conservation is much more broadly and deeply rooted in Maine communities now than it was in those days.”

Glidden too places a lot of emphasis on the state’s 80-plus land trusts, which his organization coordinates under the umbrella of the Maine Land Trust Network. The proliferation of Maine land trusts, along with the emergence of the Maine Farmland Trust, reflects a national trend, and such groups often cooperate closely on regional projects (in recent years, in fact, some smaller Maine land trusts have merged, in the interest of efficiency). Such groups have steadily worked to conserve significant lands, Glidden says, though their smaller deals, primarily in southern and western Maine, are often overshadowed by larger transactions in the North Woods or Down East. “Bigger is not necessarily better, especially in a state as big and diverse as Maine,” he cautions. “The strength of the land trust movement has been its roots in local communities
— neighbors working with neighbors around kitchen tables to protect special elements of their towns that define their heritage. The connection between people and land is intensely personal and local.”

[dropcap letter=”A”]gainst the backdrop of all this change, the Land for Maine’s Future program is moving slowly. Voters approved new bonds to fund the program in 2010 and 2012, but Governor LePage refused to release the funds until last year, using them as political leverage to push for increased timber harvest on state-owned lands. Even after capitulating, the governor has still declined to apply for federal Forest Legacy Program funds — which have often provided matching federal dollars for LMF projects — and has stacked the LMF board with members who seem to share his skepticism about the value of conservation investments. Last October, the board voted to cut by more than half a commitment it had previously made to protect a wooded hillside overlooking the State House. The longest-tenured public board member, Neil Piper, quit in protest, and the incident prompted the Bangor Daily News editorial page to declare LMF “now a poor partner for land conservation.” (Governor LePage and LMF staff declined to be interviewed for this story.)

It’s an open question whether Maine’s groundbreaking land-conservation experiment will enjoy a comeback. Glidden thinks so. He led LMF for a decade before joining Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and he believes the program has another 30 productive years, despite its recent problems. “I’d like to see LMF get going again at a faster clip, but I’m not hugely worried about it,” he says. “I know there is still a need, and I know there is still broad public support.”

Just as in the 1980s, Dempsey says, Maine’s conservation movement is at a crux, and it isn’t clear what parties will take the lead in the coming decade. “Is LMF part of it?” Dempsey asks. “Absolutely, but there also need to be other tools. I would say, as a community, we haven’t figured out what those things are yet.”

To hear one of its original champions tell it, LMF is still too good an idea to go away. “I consider it the most significant project I’ve ever worked on, in part because of its permanence,” says Senator King. In his mind, the program’s biggest challenges may still lie ahead. “The pressure for development is going to be intense, especially along the water,” he predicts — meaning the need for Maine’s land conservation movement hasn’t diminished. “I think it’s just as urgent today as it was 30 years ago.”

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