Land for Maine’s Future about to exhaust its $9M in conservation funds

Posted July 10, 2011, at 6:59 p.m.
Last modified July 11, 2011, at 6 a.m.

A special board will meet Tuesday to decide which of nearly 40 proposals seeking to protect more than 80,000 acres in Maine should receive a share of $9.25 million available through the Land for Maine’s Future program.

But Tuesday’s meeting will all but empty the land conservation program’s coffers, which are reliant on voter-approved bonds. And with no bond proposals scheduled to appear on Maine ballots in 2011, it could be a year or two before the politically popular Land for Maine’s Future program has funding to distribute to conservation projects.

“There wasn’t a bond package this [legislative] session, so unless there is a package in the Legislature next session, there won’t be funds available,” said Jody Harris, director of programs at the State Planning Office, which administers the program.

Since 1987, the Land for Maine’s Future program, or LMF, has helped protect more than 530,000 acres in Maine through sales to willing sellers or conservation easements that restrict development yet keep the property in private hands.

LMF uses voter-approved bonds for conservation projects on lands with “exceptional recreational or ecological value” as well as on farms threatened with development, commercial forests and waterfront areas important to commercial fishermen. In each case, project proponents must match the voter-approved money dollar-for-dollar.

There are currently 38 projects vying for $9.25 million in funding, approved by voters last November. The projects, which are scattered throughout the state, are seeking roughly $12.5 million to conserve more than 80,600 acres.

The projects range from a Maine Department of Conservation proposal seeking $18,175 to protect 1.15 acres at the Moose River’s Spencer Rips in Township 5 Range 7 to a Downeast Lakes Land Trust proposal seeking $1.5 million to protect an additional 21,700 acres of lake frontage and working forests in the Grand Lake Stream area.

Nine of the projects aim to preserve working farms, including one proposal that would protect three neighboring farms threatened with development in the Camden area.

John Piotti, executive director of the Maine Farmland Trust, which is seeking LMF funds for two proposals, said the need and desire for farmland preservation in Maine clearly outstrips available funding.

While disappointing, the absence of a bond package this legislative session is not critical because, in recent years, LMF has been included in bond packages every other year, said Piotti, a former Democratic leader in the Legislature.

But many people are attempting to read the tea leaves now that the State House and Blaine House are controlled by Republicans, who have been more reluctant than Democrats to seek voter approval for new bonds.

“No one knows for sure what will happen,” Piotti said. “But I think people question whether there will be a bond issuance next year or the year after. I’m an optimist, so I hope there will be a bond [package] next year.”

LMF has historically enjoyed strong bipartisan support both in the Legislature and at the polls. Voters have approved $126 million in bonds for the program during the past 24 years. And since 2000, every dollar from bonds has leveraged $2.50 in private funds.

Other changes are also in the works that could affect the program.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has made clear his intention to dismantle the State Planning Office. That means LMF will likely be absorbed by another state agency — such as the departments of conservation or agriculture — pending the recommendation of a task force examining how State Planning Office’s programs will be divvied up.

“That group has not met yet and there hasn’t been any formal discussion about where LMF may end up,” said Harris, the director of programs at the State Planning Office.

Additionally, several positions within LMF — including the executive director position — were recently eliminated by the LePage administration and lawmakers as part of the state’s belt tightening. That decision, combined with the lack of a bond package, has raised concern among some about the administration’s commitment to the program.

Others insist, however, that LMF is too popular a program to let it wither.

“I know the Legislature still supports it and I know the public does too,” said Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro. The jury is still out, however, on how much the LePage administration supports the program, he said.

Trahan had proposed a $36 million bond issuance for LMF during the 2011 legislative session, but the bill died alongside all of the other bond proposals.

Trahan did manage to shepherd through the Legislature language that will put a higher priority on using LMF funds to protect habitat critical to deer survival during Maine’s long and snowy winters.

The deer herd is in critical condition in some parts of Maine due, in large part, to the loss of the groves of mature fir trees whose interlocking canopies provide winter shelter to deer.

“Really, it is irrelevant if we don’t replenish the funds,” Trahan said of his plan to use LMF funds to protect the deer habitat.

For his part, Trahan said he believes there will be support for a small bond package next year, but he hopes lawmakers will begin working on a bond package proposal for LMF during a special legislative session expected to be held this fall.

By starting the discussion early, Trahan said, LMF would hopefully avoid the election-year politics of the 2012 session.

“I hope LMF doesn’t fall victim to that,” he said.

The Land for Maine’s Future board is expected to meet Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. in room 110 at 19 Union Street in Augusta.

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