A conservation group announced plans Wednesday to purchase roughly 22,000 acres near Grand Lake Stream in a deal that supporters said would protect one of Maine’s best-known fishing destinations while allowing for continued growth and forestry.
Downeast Lakes Land Trust’s proposal, which is contingent on raising $24 million, would protect from development much of the remaining forestland around the village of Grand Lake Stream and tens of thousands of acres to the north. The multiphase deal also would preserve 17 miles of undeveloped shoreline along West Grand Lake, Big Lake and Lower Oxbrook Lake.
Conservation easements would forever guarantee public access to the land and allow sustainable forestry in an economically challenged corner of the state where tourism and logging are the top industries.
As part of the deal, landowner Lyme Timber Co. agreed to donate to Grand Lake Stream 182 acres close to the main drag of cottages and sporting camps. That land will give the town room for future residential and business growth despite being surrounded by conservation land.
“This project is one of the greatest things to ever happen to Grand Lake Stream,” said Louis Cataldo, first selectman of the tiny Washington County town with a year-round population of 120.
“It will serve the region and the state of Maine well and future generations, I think, will be proud that those who participated in this project made it a reality,” U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said at the announcement ceremony in Bangor.
The land transaction is proposed to take place in several stages, pending successful fundraising.
First, Downeast Lakes Land Trust plans to secure working forest easements at fair market value on two pieces of land totaling 21,700 acres. Those easements, which will be held by the state, would guarantee the land will remain available for public recreation and forestry.
After the money has been raised, the land trust would then purchase the land, which will become the “West Grand Lake Community Forest.”
For Grand Lake Stream residents and leaders of the Downeast Lakes Land Trust, Wednesday’s announcement was the culmination of nearly a decade of work to protect an area with a rich history as a destination for anglers and other nature lovers.
Local residents formed the land trust in 2001 to prevent huge chunks of forestland on the market from falling into the hands of developers. The Downeast Lakes Land Trust now manages 33,000 acres just west of Grand Lake Stream and has secured conservation easements on more than 300,000 additional acres.
The properties proposed for acquisition in the latest deal would fit into a 1.4 million acre swath of publicly and privately owned conservation land stretching from Nicatous Lake into the Crown Lands of New Brunswick.
In order to illustrate local support for the initiative, several speakers on Wednesday recalled how Grand Lake Stream residents voted unanimously in November to contribute $40,000 toward the project. In fact, town selectmen had only sought authorization for a $10,000 contribution, but residents bumped it up to $40,000.
“I still can’t believe all of the parts of this complex deal fell into place,” Cataldo said.
A number of companies and other nonprofit groups had a hand in getting the project to this point.
New Hampshire-based Lyme Timber secured financing through a federal tax credit program to purchase the land from Webber Timber LLC. The Webber family had sought through its land management company, Prentiss & Carlisle, to find a conservation-minded buyer for the property.
Bangor Savings Bank and U.S. Bancorp then provided $13 million in loans for the project. Other organizations involved in the project include Sustainable Forest Futures, Coastal Enterprises Inc. and The Conservation Fund.
Of course, all of those plans will be for naught if the conservation partners cannot raise the $24 million needed to complete the deal. The land trust plans to seek donations from charitable groups, corporations and individuals as well as state and federal sources, possibly including the Land for Maine’s Future program.
“We have a long way to go in very uncertain times,” said Lindsay Wheaton, president of the land trust’s board.