There’s a satellite photo of the Northeast during the nighttime that shows sparkling lights all over the land mass — with one inky exception: the north Maine woods. Black and impenetrable, it is the largest chunk of undeveloped land in this region.
When the Land for Maine’s Future program began in 1987, that northern forest was owned largely by a small group of corporations, who harvested the timber on the land. Down in southern Maine, real-estate prices were less than half of what they are now. Across the state, farms both small and large were beginning to feel economic pressures from the growth of corporate mega-farms in warmer climates to the west and south.
In the last two decades, our state’s northern forest has undergone massive ownership change. It’s no longer in the hands of the owners who, for generations, allowed virtually free public access for hunters, trappers, hikers and anglers. Now it’s owned by real-estate investment trusts and in some cases, developers, who can gate off land or put houses on it. Real-estate prices and land values in southern Maine have skyrocketed, forcing developers to gobble up suburban and rural land at an alarming rate. And farms have gone out of business one by one, when farmers found their land was worth more for house lots than for growing food. According to the Brookings Institution, only Virginia lost a bigger share of its rural land than Maine in the 1990s.
The Land for Maine’s Future program has, in partnership with private land trusts, federal agencies and non-profit conservation organizations across the state, responded to this combination of ownership change and land conversion with strategic purchases of land and conservation easements. Farms have been preserved when threatened by development; forest land has been kept open for public access and recreation; waterfront parcels at risk of becoming second-home sites have remained, instead, available to fishermen and the public at large.
All that activity has been paid for by a series of land bonds totaling nearly $100 million in the last 20 years. That money has leveraged $126 million in private and federal funds and helped protect more than 445,000 acres across Maine.
Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and conservationists are making a plea for another infusion of cash for the Land for Maine’s Future program. They’re asking for between $40 and $95 million because, they say, the job is not done.
The public is justified in asking at this point: How much is enough? Haven’t we saved enough land with taxpayer money?
The answer, we believe, is we haven’t gotten to enough yet.
Maine still has one of the smallest percentages of land in public ownership of any state in the country. That’s an artifact of the benevolent access practices of the large corporate landowners of yesteryear; we didn’t need public ownership when the private lands were open to us. But what that also means is that we have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to ensuring preservation of, and access to, the rural, backwoods, coastal and working landscapes that provide Maine with such a distinctive identity.
That identity is a cornerstone of our state’s economic future. In the Brookings Institution’s seminal report on the potential for prosperity in Maine, the authors write that the state “should continue to invest urgenty in protecting and enhancing its top-notch quality of place, for that is its ‘calling card,’s its brand,and its truest source of prosperity.”
Maine is too far out of the mainstream, too cold, too rugged and challenging a place to live without serious payback for living here. That payback, increasingly, will be found in the quality of life that we offer our residents. And that quality of life isn’t simply how many Starbucks per square block we offer. It’s the glorious places to fish, hike, farm, paddle, hunt and otherwise engage with the outdoors that we offer.
We’d like to see Land for Maine’s Future continue its program of intelligent, thoughtful and unpoliticized land conservation. We’d also like to see it get some sort of guaranteed funding, although a previous move to assign it funds from the state’s real estate transfer tax would only provide between $3 million to 4 million per year. We believe that’s one-half to one-third of what the agency needs over the next few years.
Yet the energy expended every few years, especially by non-profit groups, on vigorous public campaigns to ensure passage of bonds to support the program strikes us as unproductive in the long run. We’d rather those groups spend their time and money on conservation, not paying for advertising campaigns and buying donuts to fuel endless strategy meetings. On the other hand, the rewards are big.
We’re not finished preserving what’s special about Maine. Land for Maine’s Future still has a job to do. If that takes a bond or a dedicated source of revenue, it’s money well spent.