by Kevin Miller
Bangor Daily News news story
One of Maine’s most successful land conservation programs is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
To mark the occasion, state officials are hoping voters will approve $17 million in state borrowing to keep the Land for Maine’s Future program in business for a couple of more years.
On Nov. 6, voters will be asked whether they support a bond package that would earmark $35.5 million for land conservation, enhanced recreational access to the outdoors, upkeep at state parks, and programs working to preserve Maine’s working farms and waterfronts.
Roughly half of the $35.5 million proposed in Question 4 would go to the Land for Maine’s Future program, which since its inception in 1987 has helped protect more than 445,000 acres throughout the state.
While the $17 million is not nearly enough to meet current demand for conservation funding, LMF advocates say it will help continue a program that is often key in brokering complicated and costly land deals to protect Maine’s natural “jewels” and the public’s access to them.
“Absolutely nothing has done as much for the state in that respect as LMF,” said Bruce Kidman, spokesman for the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
LMF began as a tool for the state to purchase key parcels that were ripe for development. Such places as Mount Kineo on Moosehead Lake and the Cutler Coast and Donnell Pond Reserve in Down East Maine are part of the state’s public lands through the initial voter-approved bonds for LMF.
Today, LMF funding is often used to help purchase conservation easements that prohibit development while protecting recreational access. The program also has expanded to protect the working waterfronts that are critical to Maine’s commercial fishing fleet.
Applicants are required to match the LMF funding dollar for dollar from other sources. Since 1999, project organizers have raised more than $4 in matching funds for every $1 in LMF money.
Tim Glidden, the program’s longtime director, said such partnerships are key to protecting land amid the current climate of ever-rising real estate costs.
One example of the importance of partnerships, Glidden said, was the Katahdin Forest conservation deal, which protected more than 195,000 acres near Baxter State Park. LMF contributed only about $2 million to the roughly $21.8 million project, but having LMF involved helped ensure that public access to the project would be guaranteed.
“What I like to tell people is when the voters approve the bonds, what they are really doing is buying Maine citizens a seat at the table during one of the most active periods of land transaction in recent state history,” Glidden said.
“What that means is you also have influence over what the terms of those projects are going to be like,” he added.
While there are always critics to additional state borrowing, there is no organized opposition to the $35.5 million bond for natural resources.
Voters have approved nearly $100 million in state borrowing for LMF: $35 million in 1987, $50 million in 1999 and $12 million in 2005. In each case, the bond measures received the support of more than 60 percent of voters.
A 1991 bond issue failed at the ballot box because it was clustered with several unrelated measures, Glidden and others said.
In May 2006, the program’s board doled out more than $12 million to projects from around the state. But the board had received applications from 32 organizations seeking $22 million. That is typical of the predicament that LMF has faced in recent years as demand outstripped funding.
“The need is much greater than the ask from the voters,” Patrick McGowan, commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, said of the coming bond question. As a state legislator, McGowan was an architect of the LMF program and sponsored the original bond measure.
“The significance is there are a lot of projects that are hanging out there around the state and the LMF program is out of money,” McGowan said.
At the time of the $50 million bond package in 1999, legislators directed Glidden and the LMF board to spend about $10 million a year on conservation projects. Less than a decade later, the board would need about $20 million to $25 million a year to achieve the same results because of skyrocketing costs for coastal, waterfront and scenic properties in Maine.
That has forced the program to spread the money out over more projects, Glidden said.
Conservation groups and other program advocates had pushed for a three-year, $75 million bond measure for LMF. Gov. John Baldacci then proposed $35 million in bonds for LMF as part of his initial bond package proposal to the Legislature.
But both Glidden and McGowan said that, given the state’s tight financial situation, they were pleased with the $17 million bond proposal now on the ballot.
While LMF may be the highest-profile program that would benefit financially from passage of Question 4, other programs would receive $18.5 million in bonds.
The bond package includes $7.5 million for maintenance and facility upgrades at Maine’s state parks and historic sites, as well as $3 million for public infrastructure improvements and water source protection.
Another $3 million would go to help preserve working waterfront areas. And $5 million would be geared toward economic development and revitalization projects in Maine’s riverfront communities. For example, the riverfront development bonds could be used to help communities redevelop former industrial sites.
On Tuesday, about a dozen people gathered on the Penobscot River waterfront in downtown Old Town to urge voters to support the measure. Standing in a park that was once the site of a large industrial facility, the speakers touted the bonds as a unique opportunity to invest in the state’s natural resources.
“These are the attributes that make Maine unique,” said John Burrows for Citizens to Save Maine’s Heritage, the coalition that held the Old Town event and a second press conference at Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal.