Conservation bond issue vitally important

Posted Oct. 08, 2010, at 6:44 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:37 p.m.

When Mainers head to the polls on Nov. 2, a number of high-profile races will capture their attention. Who will be the next governor? The next member of the U.S. House of Representatives? Their next local legislator?

All are important choices that folks should spend time considering.

But there’s more on the ballot, including one bond issue that’s vitally important to Mainers.

You’ll find it listed as Question 3. The official language asks if you want to approve “a $9,750,000 bond issue to invest in land conservation and working waterfront preservation and to preserve state parks to be matched by $9,750,000 in federal and other funds.”

Unofficially, the question asks if you want to give yourself, your children and your grandchildren a gift that will last forever.

And though times are tough and money is in short supply, that answer has to be yes.

Since its inception in 1987, the Land for Maine’s Future program has received money from the state’s residents in four bond issue votes. The bonds typically pass overwhelmingly. As a result, more than 200 projects have been completed in all 16 Maine counties. More than 500,000 acres have been conserved, guaranteeing public access for hiking and biking, fishing and hunting. Mountains, rivers, lakes, ponds and ocean shorelines have been purchased.

And no matter how bad the economy gets, now’s not the time to stop giving ourselves the precious gifts that the Land for Maine’s Future program makes possible.

Eliza Townsend, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, said that all Mainers benefit from the LMF land acquisitions. She also notes that it’s essential to remember how important public access is to a variety of activities.

“Where would we be if people didn’t have a place to go hunt? And are we willing to take the risk that there could be a Maine in the future that there isn’t a place to hunt?” Townsend asked.

Mainers have long recreated on the land of other landowners — often large timber or paper companies — but that’s not the case in many other states. Forgetting that our access to land is often dependent on the wishes of benevolent landowners could be costly, Townsend said.

“We’ve had it pretty good for a long, long time. But it would be a mistake to assume that that situation is going to continue forever,” Townsend said. “Where once there were six paper companies [that owned vast tracts of the state], there are now hundreds of landowners. Some of whom still have that philosophy of open access, and some of whom don’t. And we just don’t know what that future will be.”

Included in Question 3 is a provision by which Maine’s state parks would receive $500,000 for maintenance and upkeep. Matching funds could push that total to as much as $1 million.

Will Harris, director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, said a 2007 bond issue helped his staff spruce up some of the campgrounds and improve water and sewer systems and other infrastructure, but more money is needed.

“[In 2007] we had about $40 million worth of need in front of us, so this is just to keep up with things,” said Harris, who pointed out that state parks enjoyed an 11 percent increase in attendance this year, the 75th anniversary of the state park system.

The fact that LMF bonds have historically fared well is encouraging. But Townsend knows that different political winds seem to be blowing this year, and said that taking the passage of Question 3 for granted would be foolhardy.

The economy is struggling. Families are struggling. And voters could view bond issues with a more critical eye than they have in the past.

“It’s an odd year. Everything’s hard to predict,” Townsend said. “I want to stress that there’s an economic connection to this work. This isn’t just for fun. It’s about maintaining the Maine that we have known and loved, and ensuring that it will be here for future generations. And that includes access for recreation, for hunting, for fishing, for traditional activities, as well as for snowmobiling, which is a lifeblood economic infusion in many parts of northern Maine.”

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