Unwelcome Development

What is the future of Land for Maine’s Future?

By Edgar Allen Beem

In honoring the Land for Maine’s Future program with the 1996 Down East Environmental Award for “saving outstanding examples of the state’s landscape,” this magazine noted that Land for Maine’s Future (LMF) had “fulfilled its mandate far more successfully than anyone dared hope” in 1987 when Maine voters passed a $35 million land bond to start the conservation program.

In its first decade, LMF used that $35 million to protect some sixty thousand wild acres from development through purchase and conservation easements, including such crown jewels of the Maine landscape as Mount Kineo in Moosehead Lake, Bradbury Mountain in Pownal, parts of Mount Agamenticus in York, 37,000 acres of forest land around Nahmakanta Lake in Rainbow Township southwest of Baxter State Park, and 4.5 miles of the Bold Coast in Cutler.

The Land for Maine’s Future program has been so successful and popular that Maine voters have authorized more than $90 million since that initial $35 million — $50 million in 1999, $12 million in 2005, $20 million in 2007, and $9.25 million in 2010. Over the past twenty-five years, those public dollars have leveraged another $100 million in private dollars to complete some 300 projects protecting 550,000 acres, including 15,000 acres of deer yards, 1,150 miles of shoreline, 29 working farms, 56 water access sites, and 158 miles of snowmobile trails. LMF, in fact, has protected twice as much land through easements and fee purchase as Baxter State Park (two hundred thousand acres) and Acadia National Park ( 47,452 acres) combined.

Owing to the sluggish economy and the fiscal conservatism of the current gubernatorial administration, however, Land for Maine’s Future currently faces an uncertain future. It is almost out of money, lacks leadership, and has been shuttled around from one state department to another in an administration that is seen as ambivalent about conservation.

On November 6, Question 3 — “Do you favor a $5 million bond issue to purchase land and conservation easements statewide from willing sellers for public land and water access, conservation, wildlife or fish habitat, and outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing and deer wintering areas, and to preserve working farmland and working waterfronts to be matched by at least $5 million in private and public contributions?” — on the ballot will ask Maine voters to approve another $5 million to replenish the LMF coffers and keep the program alive.

“I think it would be the end of LMF if it failed,” says David Trahan, executive director of Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM). “It would be seen as a referendum on LMF by policymakers. It would be a shame if it failed.”

Trahan, of Waldoboro, sponsored the legislation that led to Question 3 when he was a state senator. As director of SAM, Trahan had to talk Governor Paul LePage out of vetoing the bond and into letting Maine voters decide for themselves whether to invest more in conservation despite the fact that the measure passed both houses of the state legislature with broad bipartisan support.

“I don’t think the governor realized the significance this bond has for LMF,” says Trahan. “He supports the concept of investing in critical habitat, but he doesn’t support borrowing.”

Governor LePage declined to comment about his position on either Question 3 or the LMF program, his spokesperson Adrienne Bennett stated only that “we do not have anything to offer for comment at this time.”

Question 3, however, was tailored to appeal to the governor both by virtue of being the smallest land bond in LMF history and by specifying that the lands protected by the bond would include “hunting and fishing and deer wintering areas.” The LePage administration is seen as supportive of conserving wildlife habitat, working waterfront, working forests, and farmland, but not wild lands for their own sake or for their scenic beauty.

Though the $5 million bond referendum is not earmarked for any particular projects, the habitat language in Question 3 suggests LMF support the Cold Stream Forest project, a collaboration among Maine’s Department 
of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Department of Conservation, the Trust for Public Land, and Trout Unlimited to purchase 8,150 acres in West Forks Plantation, Johnson Mountain Township, and Parlin Pond Township from Plum Creek Timber Company in order to protect a whitetail deeryard and brook trout spawning areas.

LMF, says Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the newly merged Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry (ACF), “has been a champion of taking some of Maine’s special places and making sure they are viewed as we viewed them by future generations.” But Whitcomb signals the LePage administration’s focus on the economy when he adds that “land that produces something is part of the landscape as well.”

In the past, there have been some persistent myths and misunderstandings about LMF, such as one that candidate Paul LePage articulated during the 2010 Republican primary. “Look at Land for Maine’s Future,” LePage told a reporter for Seacoastonline.com. “You can’t harvest timber, you can’t do any cutting. No one is going to have the benefit of creating wealth and prosperity from it.”

In fact, close to half of the 550,000 acres LMF has protected is working woodland, forestland that cannot be turned into resorts and shopping malls specifically in order that it might be harvested sustainability in perpetuity.

And despite what some sportsmen seem to think, LMF investment also preserves public access.

“LMF dollars guarantee public access for hunting, fishing, and hiking, except on working farms,” explains Tom Abello, the Nature Conservancy’s lobbyist in Augusta. “Over its twenty-five years, it’s protected thousands and thousands of acres for hunting, fishing, and recreation. Protecting working, sustainable forestry is a core tenet of the program.”

Historically, LMF was housed in the State Planning Office, a neutral site chosen because the Departments of Agriculture, Conservation, Inland Fisheries, and Wildlife, and Marine Resources all make grant applications to the program. LMF does not purchase land or easements; it merely makes grants to projects on a competitive basis.

As the LePage administration has sought to downsize state government and reduce state spending, LMF moved first to the Department of Conservation in 2011 when the State Planning Office closed and then to the newly merged Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry in 2012.

Currently, says ACF commissioner Whitcomb, LMF is staffed on an “as needed basis,” because the agency is nearly out of money and lacks a full-time director. The September meeting of the LMF board was cancelled because it had no business to transact even though there is a bond issue coming up and major restructuring of the program in the works.

Don Marean, who breeds harness horses in Hollis, is the chair of the LMF board. A former Republican state representative, Marean will step down from the board if he is successful in winning back his old legislative seat in November. Marean does not view the loss of momentum at LMF as a major problem.

“If we are spending taxpayers’ money, it’s something we could live without,” says Marean. “It’s not a necessity. It’s a luxury. If we have to take a pause, it won’t die.”

Marean supports the LePage administration’s focus on targeted protection for working landscapes and critical wildlife habitat. He cites five hundred-acre Randall Orchards in Standish, an approved project awaiting funding, as an example of the kind of project he sees LMF supporting in the future. He does not believe the state can afford to “preserve the side of some mountain because it’s beautiful.”

Commissioner Walter Whitcomb says LMF will necessarily be more frugal and selective for the near term. “I think there are going to be more disappointed people,” he says. “So much energy tends to go into these projects. There’s less money and more competition for that money. We can never buy all the land someone wants to set aside in Maine.”

The new austerity is largely a function of Governor Paul LePage’s fiscal restraint. Even if Question 3 passes, it is not clear whether LePage will release the funds. “The governor is our leader,” says Don Marean. “He’s in charge, and he says we’re not borrowing.”

“I understand the governor’s concern about borrowing,” says Tim Glidden, who directed the LMF program from 2001 to 2011 and now serves as president of Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT), “but I also think it’s critical to continue to invest in the foundation of the state’s economy. The upcoming bond is a way to say yes to our economic future as well as to the landscape.”

The environment is the economy in Maine. Glidden says the overarching theme of his decade at LFM was “a deeper understanding of how the land can support the state’s economy.” He cites the Katahdin Forest Project and the Downeast Lakes Land Trust as examples of major conservation projects with long-term economic benefits.

The Katahdin Forest easement protects 241,000 acres south and west of Baxter State Park for sustainable forestry, tourism, and recreation. The Downeast Lakes Land Trust, which received the 2006 Down East Environmental Award, protects 342,000 acres of woodland and waterways around Grand Lake Stream along the Maine-New Brunswick border for fishing, forestry, recreation, sporting camps, and fishing guides.

While there has not been organized opposition to LMF bond referenda since at least 1999 and the land bonds have tended to pass by majorities of 60 percent and more, not everyone is bullish on LMF. Some small-scale farmers, for instance, have concerns about the unintended consequences of land conservation.

“Across Maine,” says Diana George Chapin, who operates the Heirloom Garden of Maine in Montville with her mother, “I’ve had conversations with selectmen, farmers, foresters, and working Mainers who are primarily concerned about their property taxes, private property rights, and the financial security of future generations.”

Chapin has written a series of articles on land trusts for the Maine Wire, the online news and opinion Web site of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Where many would see land trust easements and ownership protecting the Maine landscape from development, Chapin complains in one article about land “encumbered in perpetuity with conservation easements.”

“When held by a trust,” says Chapin, “land is often placed in a tax classification that deeply reduces the property tax paid on the value of the land. Currently, some land trusts in Maine enjoy or are working to obtain complete property tax exemption. Municipal, school, and county bills still need to be paid, so the burden of that lost tax revenue shifts directly onto homeowners and other taxpayers.”

Chapin insists she is not at all opposed to conservation. “We live it every day,” she says of the family farm where she and her mother conserve heirloom plants and seeds. She just thinks the possible negative impacts of land conservation — shifting tax burdens, competitive advantages for farms controlled by land trusts, dictating to future generations how they can use the land — have not been adequately considered.

“Land conservation projects,” argues Chapin, “should be vetted and approved on a local level, so people affected by the tax shift have a say in the matter.”

Conservationists point out that undeveloped land can save a community more money than the land would generate in taxes if developed, because towns do not have to provide municipal services such as sewer systems, utilities, roads, and schools for undeveloped land. Also, land trusts usually do pay some taxes or make payments in lieu of taxes, and Maine provides tax breaks for farmland, forestland, and open space that are available to all landowners without sale of property or easements.

“Conserved lands provide public, local benefits,” says MCHT’s Tim Glidden. “Recognizing this, Maine provides for a current use taxation program that recognize these benefits whether they be provision of public recreational access, drinking water protection, wildlife habitat protection, farming, forestry, and working waterfront. In this sense, land trusts are no more being subsidized than any farmer, commercial fisherman, or timberland owner is being subsidized when they register their lands in the appropriate tax program. This is the way that Maine seeks to encourage uses of our natural resources that benefit us all.”

“The genius of the LMF program,” says Glidden, “has always been that it is capable of speaking to the very wide number of ways that Maine citizens value the land. Everyone can see their own likeness reflected back to them.”

Though there may be some fiscal and philosophical concerns about the Land for Maine’s Future program, it is true that Maine people — Republicans, Democrats, and independents, north and south, urban and rural, hunters and hikers, loggers and nature lovers — have generously supported LMF for twenty-five years, and there is no reason to think they will not continue to do so. The Land for Maine’s Future Coalition, a broad-based group of 275 organizations and businesses, will be working to make sure Question 3 passes.

“Maine people see this program as insuring our brand,” says the Nature Conservancy’s Tom Abello, who works with the coalition. “The environment is really the reason people come to Maine and the reason people live in Maine. This program is the one program making a real investment in that.”

“This program has a legacy and it has a future,” insists Trahan. “I don’t think that one administration is going to change that. It’s going to be here long-term.”

Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer and a contributing editor to Down East.