A much-needed, insult-free process has produced a roadmap for the future.
They must feel like they just came up out of the treeline and had the sun hit their faces for the first time in a while.
A task force on land conservation is calling for a return to the robust programs that have protected lands for all Mainers but which suffered during the LePage administration.
Then-Gov. Paul LePage took a dim view of land conservation, going so far as to hold back voter-approved funding for the Land for Maine’s Future program. He even called the program “corrupt” on more than one occasion, even though there was no proof of that and the program is widely admired.
The group started meeting in May, not by government order but of their own volition. It included representatives from land trusts, motorized and nonmotorized outdoor recreation, the farming industry, tourism and state, county and municipal governments.
What followed was a much-needed, insult-free discussion on the merits of land conservation in Maine – what we are doing right, what we are doing wrong and where we should go from here.
After meeting among themselves and with the public for six months, the task force last week released its draft recommendations. They can be read at maineconservationtaskforce.com. Mainers can also leave comments for the final report, which will be presented to Gov. Mills and the Legislature later this year.
The recommendations include a $65 million bond for Land for Maine’s Future, which matches private and individual contributions to projects deemed to be in the public’s interest.
The program has been a tremendous success, protecting thousands of acres in a state with little publicly owned land. It has saved working forests, farms and piers; hiking and snowmobile trails; deer habitat and top fishing areas.
But the last Land for Maine’s Future bond was offered in 2012, and LePage withheld those and others for years. During his administration, the program, widely popular, was diminished.
The task force also recommends a $10 million bond to finance projects and maintenance at state parks, which have a backlog of needed work and have not completed a significant new project in decades.
The recommendations address some of the criticisms of land conservation. The report suggests that community-based projects near where people live get priority, so that the most number of residents can enjoy the outdoors.
It aims to strengthen the state-run landowner relations programs, which are important pieces in a state where so much recreation takes place on someone else’s land.
The report suggests that land trusts help communities that have had a significant amount of land removed from the tax rolls through conservation. This was a particular bugaboo of LePage, who sought unsuccessfully to tax conservation land. It’s not nearly the problem LePage claimed it is, but in a few rural communities, some sort of remediation is appropriate.
Those are reasonable, attainable recommendations for protecting lands valuable to Mainers for a variety of reasons that would otherwise likely be lost.
More than that, it’s the result of Mainers who came together to share their knowledge and experience, and worked to bridge their sometimes-competing views of what conservation should accomplish. That’s a welcome development.