by Kevin Miller
AUGUSTA – Legislative leaders joined with representatives of conservation organizations Tuesday in calling for a cash infusion for the state’s popular Land for Maine’s Future program.
During the past 20 years, Maine voters have approved nearly $100 million in bonds for conservation projects through Land for Maine’s Future, or LMF. That money, when combined with more than $126 million in federal and private funds, has helped protect more than 445,000 acres across the state through conservation easements or land purchases from willing sellers.
But in May, the LMF board doled out its last dollars for conservation and farm protection. The program has less than $1 million left for working waterfront projects, part of the $12 million LMF bond package approved by voters in 2005.
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers urged their colleagues — and Gov. John Baldacci — to support a new, multiyear LMF bond package for the November 2007 ballot. They were joined by representatives from several conservation groups, including Maine Audubon, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
“Every time [voters] are given an opportunity to say yes, they do,” said Sen. Elizabeth Mitchell, the Senate majority leader from Vassalboro. “Our job now is to get an adequate amount on the ballot.”>/p>
At least seven bills are seeking bond money for LMF, with requests ranging from $40 million to $95 million.
LMF director Tim Glidden said in an interview Tuesday that land targeted for LMF funding has more than doubled in price since 1999, meaning the state’s money can go only half as far as it did a decade ago.
Glidden said $25 million a year for several years would allow the program to keep up with demand. The program would begin accepting formal applications for funding after voter approval with the goal of awarding money in 2008, he said.
Of course, the LMF bills will have to compete with more than 60 other bond requests for everything from bridge repair to research on stem cells and Maine-made biofuels.
Both House Speaker Glenn Cummings of Portland and Senate President Beth Edmonds of Cumberland spoke in favor of an LMF bond package.
Cummings, who has submitted legislation seeking $95 million for LMF over five years, cited a recent Brookings Institution study that recommended the state free up money to conserve Maine’s natural treasures by trimming other areas of the budget. Cummings said Maine residents historically have supported protecting the state’s mountains, lakes and seacoast from development.
“I think the bottom line is both Republicans and Democrats understand the quality-of-life issues and the economic benefits” of land conservation, Cummings said afterward.
Baldacci spokesman David Farmer said the governor’s bond request will include money for LMF but that the administration has not settled on an exact amount yet.
Central, Down East and northern Maine projects all have been well represented in past LMF payouts. For instance, several conservation groups received $794,000 last May to acquire more than 4,800 acres along the Moose River — a popular paddling destination — near Moosehead Lake.
Another group received $446,000 to conserve more than 1,000 acres of the Caribou Bog on Pushaw Lake’s eastern shores. And a coalition of groups received $862,000 to conserve nearly 26,000 acres in Hancock County known as the “Great Pond and Lower Penobscot Forest.”>/p>
The latter project is part of a much bigger goal of creating a 63,000-acre corridor of conservation land stretching from Bangor to the coast.
The project, to date, has received $1.5 million in LMF funding. Organizers were pleased to learn this week that President Bush has included $3.3 million in his Fiscal Year 2008 budget for the Lower Penobscot Forest.
The project ranked third in the president’s priority list for Forest Legacy Program funds. However, recommended Forest Legacy funding for FY08 has been slashed in half, meaning there will be increased competition for funds. Congress also has yet to approve Forest Legacy appropriations for the fiscal year that began in October.
Bruce Kidman, spokesman for the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said LMF funding helps make it possible to pursue these larger collaborative conservation projects. The Nature Conservancy is working with the Forest Society of Maine and the state on the Lower Penobscot project.
“We don’t expect the state to do the whole thing,” Kidman said. “We look to private donors to do their part.”>/p>