EDITORIALS

Land conservation priorities can be better defined

Mount Kineo, which was acquired through the Land for Maine's Future program in 1990, rises out of Moosehead Lake.
Mount Kineo, which was acquired through the Land for Maine's Future program in 1990, rises out of Moosehead Lake.
Posted May 11, 2012, at 2:01 p.m.

The Land for Maine’s Future program committed the last of its money last year. So, as lawmakers consider whether Maine should borrow money to pay for infrastructure and other projects, the lack of money for land acquisition should be a concern.

Members of the Appropriations Committee have agreed to a $5 million bond for LMF. It needs approval from the Legislature and governor — who has said he doesn’t support any bonds until the state budget is “balanced” — before the bond proposal would be put out to voters.

Letting the program die for a lack of money is not a responsible outcome. Instead, approving a small infusion of money while LMF takes a year or so to better define itself and its priorities could be beneficial. The program is being moved from the State Planning Office to the Department of Conservation.

The Land for Maine’s Future program remains popular with voters — a $9.75 million bond package for the program was supported by 57 percent of voters in 2010.

The Legislature established the program in 1987 during Republican Gov. John McKernan’s administration. The booming 1980s saw real estate speculation and demand from retirees carve up land that most locals expected would always be open. In addition, the legacy paper companies that owned most of the North Woods were changing hands, putting the future of leased camps and hunting and fishing areas in jeopardy.

The idea was simple: borrow money, create a board that identified key parcels that met a specific criteria and purchase them from willing sellers. And the purchased land had to be open to the public.

The legislation put it this way:

“The Legislature declares that the future social and economic well-being of the citizens of this state depends upon maintaining the quality and availability of natural areas for recreation, hunting and fishing, conservation, wildlife habitat, vital ecologic functions and scenic beauty and that the state, as the public’s trustee, has a responsibility and a duty to pursue an aggressive and coordinated policy to assure that this Maine heritage is passed on to future generations.”

In the early years, large tracts of often remote land were preserved. In more recent years, the borrowed money was used in conjunction with local land trust money, private and corporate donations and seller discounts to buy land with scenic views, farms and waterfront access for fishermen. To date, following multiple referendums in which voters endorsed borrowing $126 million in all, the program has preserved more than 530,000 acres.

Land for Maine’s Future funds have been used for dozens of projects, including Mount Kineo on Moosehead Lake, Cutler’s Bold Coast and the 329,000-acre West Branch of the Penobscot River project. The program also has acquired land or conservation easements on 1,000 miles of shorefront and 8,000 acres of farmland.

In July 2011, a board distributed the final $9.25 million available for conservation and recreational projects.

A recent economic analysis by The Trust for Public Land — a national conservation organization that has worked on several projects in Maine involving Land for Maine’s Future — estimated that the return on investment for the program was $11 for every $1 spent. The analysis calculated the economic value of goods and services from the lands protected through the program, including in the forest products industry and from nature-based tourism.

LMF has been beneficial to Maine. Now the program needs to prioritize the places or types of land that continue to need protection as part of building its case for another round of funding.

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