Supporting conservation fund helps Maine tourism

Posted Sept. 23, 2010, at 6:44 p.m.

This summer proved that Americans are starting to get out and travel again, but they are choosing experiences nearer to home, where they can enjoy the great outdoors. High visitation levels at Acadia National Park, the White Mountain National Forest and other Maine destinations show that Mainers and others value the beauty of our own country.

As the Maine Center for Economic Policy noted in a recent publication, “Amenity Investments and Tourist Destination Development,” tourism has been a mainstay of the Maine economy for more than a century. Today, it is one of Maine’s most important and reliable export sectors, bringing the state jobs, billions of dollars of business activity and millions of dollars of state tax revenues annually. With appropriate public investments, tourism holds great promise for further sustainable economic growth, especially in Maine’s most rural and economically distressed communities.

Many of our outdoors experiences are thanks to the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which dedicates a portion of revenues from offshore oil and gas development to be used for land conservation and outdoor recreation throughout the country. Signed into law in 1964, the LWCF is intended to mitigate, in part, potential damages from offshore oil and gas production by protecting some of America’s most precious land resources. LWCF also provides recreational facilities and close-to-home opportunities for people in Maine and every state in the nation.

LWCF is authorized to receive $900 million per year — a small portion of the offshore revenues that typically tally more than $5 billion. But full funding has occurred only once in the LWCF’s 46-year history and recently declined to a low of $138 million in 2007. It has been instrumental in many of the places that are most dear to us as Mainers and Americans, providing resource protection to the White Mountain National Forest, Acadia National Park, the Moosehorn and Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuges, the Appalachian Scenic Trail, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Rangeley Lake State Park, Bigelow Preserve and a multitude of community parks, forests and recreation areas throughout the state.

Linking economic development with environmental stewardship and sustainable management of our natural resources is a new and emerging pathway for partnerships between conservationists and developers. LWCF is a critical resource for rural communities and economies, where the forest products and tourism industries depend on healthy working forests, which have provided economic, social and environmental benefits to Mainers for generations.

Coastal Enterprises, Inc. sees this connection every day. All of CEI’s lending, investment and business assistance activities are aimed at creating assets for people with low incomes while benefiting the wider economy, environment and welfare of all Maine residents.

CEI has been involved in the financing of several conservation-related projects over the past few years and has seen firsthand the important connection between economic development and conservation, most recently in the village of Grand Lake Stream in Washington County. CEI was involved in this important project through our use of the New Markets Tax Credit, or NMTC — a program established at the U.S. Treasury Department to help attract private capital to historically underserved projects and communities. NMTC funding helped meet community priorities, including town acquisition of 182 acres for the development of affordable housing, light industry and mixed-use development.

The Downeast Lakes Land Trust acquired an option to purchase and permanently protect 21,700 acres as the West Grand Lake Community Forest. In addition to private philanthropic funds, federal sources such as the Forest Legacy Program (funded through the LWCF) and the North American Wetland Conservation Act may play important roles in the $24 million capital campaign DLLT now is working on. The Community Forest project will preserve 100 jobs in the local guiding, logging and lodging industries.

The tragic situation in the Gulf of Mexico this summer highlights the fragility and interconnectedness of our economy and our natural environment. In that light, the vision behind the LWCF is more relevant than ever.

On July 30, the House of Representatives passed the Consolidated Land, Energy and Aquatic Resources, or CLEAR, Act of 2009, HR 3534, which included full, dedicated funding for LWCF with the support of Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud. We encourage Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins, who are among the strongest supporters of LWCF and many other programs that benefit rural Maine, to continue working with Senate leadership to ensure that full and dedicated funding for LWCF is included in energy or other relevant legislation and enacted before the end of this Congress.

Ronald Phillips is president of Coastal Enterprises and Christopher St. John is executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

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