by Christine Parrish
Free Press Online news story
Since 1987, when Maine voters approved the first Land for Maine’s Future (LMF) bond, the program has been working to help protect land of statewide significance from development.
Now 30 years old, the LMF program, by most measures, is a success.
As of this year, LMF has helped save over 600,000 acres from being developed — into private marinas, house lots and shopping malls — including 40 farms, 1,200 miles of shoreline, and 24 commercial working waterfront properties.
The program has also secured public access to 54 ponds, lakes, streams and rivers and helped turn 158 miles of former railroad tracks into recreational trails.
As the LMF program matured, it got better at providing a big bang for the taxpayer buck: every LMF dollar represents $2.50 in matching funds that come from a variety of sources, with land trusts and other organizations doing the heavy lifting to raise the money to conserve land.
It’s popularity among Maine voters has not waned, either. Voters routinely approve LMF bonds. In 2015, voters said yes again, passing $11.5 million in LMF bonds.
The Anti-Conservation Governor
But LePage said no.
The governor spent most of 2015 refusing to sign the bonds. Typically a formality, since voters have already approved the bonds, the governor’s signature is technically required for the bonds to be sold.
For months, LePage held the LMF bonds hostage, even going so far as to get into a fight with Republican Senator Roger Katz over Howard Hill, a 164-acre property in Augusta that provides the backdrop to the state capitol and green space for residents. Howard Hill, which Katz supported, was in the final stages of LMF approval after a years-long process. LePage painted the project as corrupt because Katz’s law partner would benefit from the sale of Howard Hill. Those corruption claims never stuck.
Along the way, LePage said other LMF projects, like the Brave Boat Headwaters parcel that is part of the largest remaining undeveloped land in Kittery, were not worthy of conservation and should not be paid for with any taxpayer funds.
At the same time, LePage pressured legislators to unlock the dedicated account for Maine Public Reserved Lands so he could access that money in exchange for his signature on LMF.
Then, LePage hamstrung his own appointees on the LMF board so they couldn’t finalize LMF projects they had shepherded through the approval process, which can take years.
Some LMF projects essentially have a sell-by date. If the deal isn’t finalized, the other funding partners or the willing seller could walk away.
The governor, however, had underestimated the broad public support for LMF and its popularity among both Democratic and Republican legislators, and his effort to strong-arm the Legislature failed.
The undermining of LMF continued.
The LMF board of directors soldiered on. Even though they were unable to sign off on fully approved and funded projects because of LePage’s refusal to sign the bonds, board members continued to refine the approval process known as The Workbook.
By the end of 2015, LePage agreed to allow the bonds to go through, but 2016 showed he might have succeeded in leaving LMF punctured and politicized.
Board members appointed by the governor had not supported his bond-hostage approach. One by one they left or were termed out, except for an Aroostook-born land appraiser: Neil Piper.
LePage appointed new public members who were unlikely to challenge him. The three Maine agency heads on the board — Walter Whitcomb from the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, Chandler Woodcock from Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and Patrick Keliher from the Department of Marine Resources — were also widely expected to support the governor’s wishes.
In a vote last October that appeared to be purely political, the new board slashed the amount of LMF funds going to the already-approved Howard Hill project in half, willy-nilly, without cause.
When asked, board members said the land had been appraised too high — the same position LePage had taken on Howard Hill — though the project had already gone through the review process.
Piper, who had been on the board during the vetting process for Howard Hill and had faith in the rigorous approval process, resigned.
Once seen as being as reliable as a U.S. Savings Bond, the LMF program now left questions: Could partners rely on LMF anymore? Or would politics come first?
Piper said it would take the LMF program more than five years to recover from the governor’s attacks, but that the politicization of the program may have undermined it for good.
LMF funds 12 projects in 2016
In spite of the trouble, LMF succeeded in funding 12 projects in 2016, including a recreation property in Burnham used for hunting, fishing, hiking, kayaking and canoeing that is now owned by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Miller’s Wharf in Tenants Harbor was also kept open to commercial fishing with the help of LMF funds disbursed last year after the landowner contacted the governor directly.
The LMF investment in the 2016 projects was just over $4.4 million, which generated over $11 million in matching funds provided by contributions from individuals, towns, organizations and agencies and by private landowners selling their land at a discount.
Three more LMF projects closed in the first three months of this year, according to LMF staff, including two LePage opposed: Howard Hill, which had a total cost of roughly $1 million, with $163,500 of that from LMF funds, and Brave Boat Headwaters in Kittery, with $150,000 in LMF funds to complete the purchase.
It appeared that LePage’s attention on LMF had wandered until the Bangor Daily News reported earlier this month that he had found a couple of LMF proposals he liked, including the Big Six on the Quebec border.
The Big Six Forest is 23,000 acres on Maine’s western border that provides about a quarter of Maine’s maple syrup production and is also managed for commercial timber. If approved, the project would pay the owner, Paul Fortin, $5.7 million for an easement on the Big Six, with about $1 million coming from LMF. The land would continue under commercial use for sugaring and timber.
There is no argument in the conservation community that Big Six is worthy, but recent news reports pointed out that Fortin, a longtime LePage supporter, gave a political action committee affiliated with LePage $20,000 last year, thus raising the question of whether there is a quid pro quo arrangement between Fortin and LePage for financing Le-Page’s as-yet-unannounced future political campaign in return for LMF approval.
LePage has said in the past that he plans to cherry-pick LMF projects that put Mainers to work, such as favoring projects that include timber management or other commercial operations, even though he is not in charge of how the program operates.
On Tuesday, April 11, a change was proposed to the scoring system for approving LMF projects that may formalize the governor’s preferences.
There was also discussion over whether new applications for LMF grants would be accepted, even though there are 15 projects that are already approved, but not funded.
Conservation groups who are partnering with LMF on the existing projects urged the LMF board this week to fund those that are ready before accepting new proposals.
If a request for proposals goes out, Big Six is expected to apply.
The LMF board is likely to decide on changing the scoring system and whether to accept new proposals at the May meeting.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said LMF has been bloodied during the past six years but will survive.
“The governor has left state land conservation policy in Maine with no rudder,” he said. “It’s going in circles.”
“This will be an issue in the next governor’s race because
I will be asking candidates where they stand on LMF,” said Trahan. “And for a new round of bonds to go in front of voters.”