One of the chief complaints Gov. Paul LePage has lodged against a popular state land protection program in recent months is that its benefits accrue mainly to the wealthy.
“We ask the taxpayer — which is not the rich people — to sell bonds and give it to the rich people so they can get these beautiful pieces of land conserved, and once you conserve it, you say to the poor people, ‘pay for it,’” LePage said June 2 explaining his intention to investigate Land for Maine’s Future, an independently operated state program that LePage has effectively stymied by refusing to release nearly $11.5 million in bond funding.
The statement by LePage — which he has since reiterated — was an irresponsible smear of a state program that has proven to deliver a return on the state’s investment. Ironically, though, LePage’s actions in recent months to stall the program risk adding a grain of truth to his contention that land conservation is a venture that primarily serves the wealthy.
Since 1987, Land for Maine’s Future has helped to set aside 580,000 acres of conservation land, active farmland and working waterfront in Maine’s 16 counties. One result has been to spare working forest, deer habitat, working waterfront, farmland and other valuable parcels from the risk of development.
The other important result has been to protect the public’s access to nearly every single one of those parcels, so Maine residents have places to hunt, hike, fish and camp. The only Land for Maine’s Future purchases that don’t automatically allow public access are set aside so working Mainers — foresters, farmers and commercial fishermen — can make their living from them.
Hardly initiatives designed to benefit the wealthy.
“LMF projects have benefited everyone across the state,” said Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine. “Yes, some landowners have received some money, but they’ve sold some value, and selling that value provides extraordinary opportunity for people of all economic classes in Maine.”
On Tuesday, Land for Maine’s Future board members learned that the window of opportunity had passed on nearly $6.5 million of their voter-granted bonding authority since LePage had withheld the funds. The fate of the bonds hangs in the balance, but the Legislature still has a chance to save the bonds and extend their expiration date by another five years.
Meanwhile, the 30 projects the bonds were supposed to fund face a similarly tenuous fate, even if the bonds survive.
“We still have over a year left on our option agreement. You have to hope that things get resolved” in that time, Hutchinson said of his organization’s project to preserve nearly 14,000 acres of working forest in Piscataquis County. “There are a lot of good projects that don’t have that luxury of time that we do.”
The bonds would provide $9.1 million for those conservation projects, while private partners would raise $24.9 million to seal the deals. That’s nearly a three-to-one return on the state’s investment, and the state’s investment is the part of the deal that guarantees public access to the conserved areas.
But with the fate uncertain for many of these 30 projects, the organizations involved might either have to drop the projects or turn to private donors to make up for the state’s share. If the deals fall apart, the public could lose out entirely while the land is, say, developed with multimillion-dollar homes. If private donors step in to make up the difference, they can demand particular conditions in exchange — such as prohibitions on public access, hunting and snowmobiling.
If either of those outcomes is the result, millionaires win, and the public loses — all due to LePage’s misguided impression that Land for Maine’s Future isn’t a program that benefits all Mainers.