Nearly 7,500 acres has recently been conserved in the town of Orient, located in southern Aroostook, The Conservation Fund announced this week. Managed as a working forest for more than a century, this newly conserved land includes one of the largest white-tailed deer wintering areas in the region, as well as key waterfowl habitat and miles of undeveloped shoreline on scenic lakes and brooks.

After years of planning, the land has been transferred from The Conservation Fund to the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. The land, located on the international border, will continue to be sustainably harvested for timber while being managed in a way that protects important wildlife habitats. The property also will be open to a wide variety of public recreation.

Permanently conserving this land is the first big step in a larger project called the East Grand Lake Watershed Initiative, a multiphase initiative to protect more than 12,000 acres and 30 miles of undeveloped shoreline on five lakes in the area, including 21 miles on East Grand Lake alone.

“This is a large project that is really trying to integrate community and economic needs with conservation and environmental needs,” said Tom Duffus, vice president and Northeast representative for The Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit organization that has worked in all 50 states since 1985 to protect more than 7.5 million acres of land.

The Conservation Fund purchased the land in Orient and an additional 4,520 acres in the Town of Weston from Wagner Forest Management in 2011 through its Working Forest Fund, but it wasn’t until March of this year that Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands had the necessary funding to purchase the land from The Conservation Fund.

“It took that amount of time in order to generate the funding,” Duffus explained. “That’s one of the services we provide at The Conservation Fund. When parcels that are important to conservation are available, we can become the temporary owner and buy the time to work through the details of community needs and interests and find public and private funding sources.”

The conserved land in Orient is in two parcels: 5,992 acres in north Orient, stretching to the shore of North Lake and tracing the international boundary along Monument Brook, and a 1,494-acre conservation easement in south Orient, which includes almost all of Longley Lake and a stretch of scenic shore on East Grand Lake overlooking Half Moon Island.

“To describe the area along Monument Stream, it’s almost like you’re in another world when you’re up there paddling,” said Heather Zakupowsky, who lives adjacent to the conserved land in north Orient. “It’s a great area if you want to go up and bird watch. It’s just a very pristine area.”

Managed as a working forest for more than a century, the land will provide public access for hunting, guiding, snowmobiling, all-terrain vehicle riding, as well as fishing on the famous East Grand Lake.

“What’s nice is that this area will be available for public recreation now that it’s conserved,” Zakupowsky said. “We don’t have to worry about whether another big landowner is going to buy up the land and basically shut it off. People like to fourwheel up there and hunt.”

“Both pieces [of land] are providing jobs to guide services and other recreational-based businesses that we hope will be growing in the area,” Duffus said.

The transfer of the land to State of Maine was made possible largely because of $1.8 million in federal funding from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a bipartisan federal program that uses a percentage of proceeds from offshore oil and gas royalties, not taxpayer dollars. LWCF and the Forest Legacy Program are annually funded by the U.S. Congress.

“The preservation of nearly 7,500 acres in Orient is great news for working forests as well as the hunters, anglers, snowmobilers and other outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy using the forestland surrounding East Grand Lake,” Maine’s U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King said in a joint statement. “Maine is renowned for its working forests, public access to recreation and a commitment to conservation, which together are integral to our state’s economy. We commend The Conservation Fund for working with the community partners and ensuring the preservation of this property for future generations.”

“This project is important for our Maine families and kids to enjoy our state’s great outdoors, while also ensuring that the land continues to be sustainably harvested so that it remains a healthy working forest,” Maine U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin said in a prepared statement. “As a proud member of the House Conservation Caucus and supporter of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, I will continue to protect our state’s unique natural beauty and resources.”

Other sources of funding for the land and conservation easement include a grant from the Open Space Institute’s Northern Forest Transborder Protection Fund and money from the Katahdin Lake Deer Yard Mitigation Fund, a source of funding created specifically for a deer yard acquisition in Aroostook County.

“The deer yard is actually quite an important piece to keep intact because so much of the area has been cut over,” said Zakupowsky, who has lived adjacent to the conserved land in north Orient for the past 12 years. “Where I live actually borders that land, and so for wintertime we literally see all kinds of deer moving into the deer yard. We realize the importance of them having this area in order for them to overwinter.”

Recognizing that the conservation of this land will restrict development in the town, The Conservation Fund has been working closely with the residents of Orient over the past five years to create economic development projects that focus on youth, health care and community growth needs.

Thanks to a Healthy People Healthy Places grant from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, the Conservation Fund is providing resources to the East Grand Health Center to help with business planning, and to the East Grand School in Danforth for the construction of an outdoor classroom to facilitate hands-on learning and exploration, and for GPS units and GIS software to site and map a network of cross-country ski trails on the land owned.

Existing networks of woods roads and multiuse trails exist on both the conserved Orient properties, Duffus said, and the plan is to formalize some of those trails and improve public access to Longley Lake with a parking area and public boat launch. Another focus is to keep access often to North Lake, where people often put in boats to paddle up Monument Brook for bird watching and bird hunting.

“That’s a very popular thing that we want to be sure folks continue to have access to,” Duffus said.

In addition, The Conservation Fund will be donating property to the town for a new town building and also selling three home lots near Route 1 to encourage town growth.

“The conservation is very complex,” Duffus said. “It deals with community needs, and it also deals with habitats. To be successful and do the right thing, you have to make every effort to bring those together. That’s what we’ve attempted to do here.”

The Conservation Fund is still looking for permanent funding for the 4,520 acres of land it purchased in the neighboring town of Weston.

“We don’t know what the future holds for the Weston parcels that we acquired in terms of conservation,” Duffus said. “We’re in the wait-and-see mode right now, continuing to do community work and actively managing that land so it’s providing jobs and it’s open to the public. … We’re the temporary owner, and we’re looking for conservation funding and a solution going forward.”

The Weston parcels include a well-known scenic outlook on Route 1 known as the “Million Dollar View,” as well as land that includes 21 miles of frontage on East Grand Lake.

To learn more about The Conservation Fund, visit conservationfund.org.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...