By George Smith
Bangor Daily News blog
The room was packed, most unusual for a meeting of the Land for Maine’s Future Board. Extra chairs were squeezed into the small room, but some folks still had to stand. The news that Governor Paul LePage was refusing to permit the LMF Board to use bond money to complete its projects drew attention from the media, environmental and sportsmen’s groups, landowners, and legislators. Today, unfortunately, we learned that the news was true.
Sarah Demers, a former staff member at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and now the new Executive Director of the LMF program, took the board through a series of briefings on available funding, status of bond issues, and details of current projects. Up on a screen, she displayed 13 projects totaling $4,115,250 with anticipated closings between now and October. Cash on hand totaled just $2,245,501. “Obviously we do not have enough cash to complete all of these projects,” said Sarah. This is not all the projects in process, and Sarah, in answer to a question, said 9 or 10 additional projects not on her list were scheduled to close by the end of the year.
Projects of most interest to me are the Kimball Pond project (offering western access to the 6,000-acre Kennebec Highlands just 10 minutes from my Mount Vernon home), the Central Maine Sportsman Access project and the Cold Stream Forest project. Sarah said LMF funds are not currently available for these projects, although the staff is continuing to pursue all of the projects, hoping that funding will be available.
LMF Board chair Bill Vail, former Commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and a highly respected individual and outdoor leader, raised “the elephant in the room,” the Governor’s recent decision not to allow LMF to fund its share of these projects. Current DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, also an LMF Board member, spoke “on behalf of the Commissioners and the Governor.” The Governor met with his commissioners and gave them a statement that Woodcock presented: “He is not interested in selling more bonds at this time. He is very interested in making sure the heating needs for the people are met this winter. Part of that is for our agencies to sell more timber around the state. He wants that to take place, and is not interested in purchasing any more land. He is willing to look at the projects and the money that is available.”
“What is the connection between these projects and cutting on public lands?” asked Vail, rather incredulous at this argument. “It’s a political nexus,” responded Woodcock. Vail made a strong statement against holding funds hostage “until the Governor accomplishes his political agenda” calling this “very wrong.” Woodcock chose not to respond, simply saying that he had relayed the governor’s message and had nothing else to say. But the discussion went on.
Woodcock, in response to another question from Vail, said he thought the forest harvesting issue would be resolved by the end of the session. “The governor is certainly willing to look at the current projects and the cash on hand,” said Woodcock. I would be astonished if that is good enough for the legislature, which is currently considering the governor’s proposal to significantly increase harvesting on public lands.
Sarah said she had already provided the governor with the list of current projects, funding needed, and deadlines for closings, through June 30, 2015, the end of the current fiscal year.
Commissioner Pat Keliher of the Department of Marine Resources, also an LMF Board member, said the governor’s refusal to sell any more bonds leaves many projects up in the air, but the board and staff should continue on with the process. Vail noted some of the owners of the project lands had borrowed money, and asked if the board could meet with the governor to discuss this issue. Keliher said he, Commissioner Woodcock, and Commissioner Whitcomb of the Agriculture, Conservation, and Parks Department, also an LMF Board member, along with Sarah, had been talking with the governor regularly on this issue. I do hope Bill follows through and gets this meeting with the governor, to express the board’s concern over the Governor’s decision.
All the major environmental groups attended this meeting, expressing dismay at the governor’s decision. Seeing Beth Ahearn there, representing Maine Conservation Voters, reminded me of an LMF bond issue campaign when Beth, representing Maine Audubon, and I, representing the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, were in a TV ad urging a yes vote. So I was especially pleased to see Dave Trahan, SAM’s Executive Director, at this meeting. Dave gave me a written statement. Here is some of that statement.
“The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine is concerned that Governor LePage appears to have withdrawn his support for the Land for Maine’s Future Program, support he reinforced with our Board during the election year process. In the last legislative session, the Governor’s staff worked with SAM to prioritize the purchase of high priority wildlife habitat projects, like the Cold Stream Project, that will, if completed, protect an important deer wintering complex; in addition, purchase miles of sensitive brook trout spawning streams feeding the Kennebec and Dead Rivers.”
“Our organization is committed to maintaining the Land for Maine Futures Program and we ask the Governor to reconsider his recent decision to seriously curtail LMF. If the Governor is committed to building a robust and thriving economy in all areas of Maine, the LMF program must remain healthy and thriving.”
In June of 2013, following legislative approval of a proposal to pay hospital debs, the Governor announced in a press release, “As a measure of good faith, I am hereby directing the State Treasurer to begin to prepare those bonds for my signature on an expedited basis.” That included $12.425 million on LMF bonds approved by voters in November 2010 and November of 2012.
Today, he broke that promise.
This is very likely not the end of this sad story. The Maine legislature may step into the fray, looking for a way to force the governor to keep his promises to the Land for Maine’s Future program, to the Legislature, and to the people of Maine. Let’s hope they are successful.
For additional background information on this crucial issue, please read my March 10 column titled: Governor breaks promise, withholds funds, and threatens conservation projects, published in this blog.
Here are the details about LMF funding that Sarah Demers presented to the LMF Board today.
On November 19, 2013, the Board provided funding recommendation by category as follows:
Conservation & Recreation $2,500,000
Working waterfront $1,000,000
Water access $500,000
Authorized bond issues $34,250,000
Bonds to be sold $11,470,000
Cash balance $2,245,501