by Susan Sharon
MPBN news story
As bonds go, it’s a small one, just $5 million. But supporters of the bond to replenish the Land for Maine’s Future program said it faces an uphill battle even though polls show most voters overwhelmingly support the idea of preserving wildlife habitat and public access. That’s because the bond is competing against four others totaling more than $95 million dollars. And because it will need a two-thirds vote in both the Maine House and Senate to withstand a possible veto from the governor. Conservationists and sportsmen are concerned about what that could mean for projects underway across the state.
Back in 1999 Maine voters overwhelmingly supported a $50 million bond for land conservation backed by former Governor Angus King. But this year Governor LePage and some Republicans are concerned about what they view as excess borrowing at a time when the state is grappling with an $83 million budget shortfall. And former State Sen. David Trahan, who recently took the reins at the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine is worried that funding for the Land for Maine’s Future program could be in jeopardy.
“If we lose this two-year cycle many of the projects that are on the market now, that the state could negotiate, they’re going to look elsewhere for the money and I’m afraid that somebody wealthy from other states will come in here and recognize they can buy half a township and it’s on the market and it’ll be gone and it’ll be gone forever,” Trahan said.
Over the past two-and-a-half decades more than a half-million acres have been conserved through the Land for Maine’s Future Program: everything from forests and farms to fishing access. These are projects that preserve traditional ways of life such as logging but also protect special habitats and public access for all kinds of recreation. And there’s an economic benefit. A recent study by the Trust for Public Land found that for every one dollar spent on LMF, $11 are spent on goods and services. Speaking at a news conference in support of the bond, David Ramsey, president of the Brownville Snowmobile Club, said that’s a win-win for rural communities that depend on a network of snowmobile trails through private land to keep cash registers humming during the winter months.
“The amount of money that comes to our town, maybe it doesn’t seem like a lot if you put it on paper, but that’s 300 million dollars in three months, three months time,” said Ramsey. “In our town it means a lot.”
This year LMF is continuing to focus on conserving wildlife habitat for white-tailed deer, which used to be a mainstay of the rural economy but whose numbers are down because of loss of habitat. With fewer deer there are fewer hunters and that translates to declining state revenue. But Trahan and others said LMF can help reverse that trend, by acting as seed money for matching local, private and federal dollars. During its history the program has leveraged more than $100-million for projects around the state. Still, State Senator Tom Saviello (R-Wilton) is chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, he said there’s a misunderstanding about what LMF does.
“People believe they’re buying land and taking it out of the tax rolls, out of opportunity for forestry activities, recreation activities. They have this perception that it’s being put in a preserve,” said Saviello. “And there can be nothing further from the truth than that.”
Instead, Saviello said LMF helps with the purchase of conservation easements so land is simply protected from development. Even as the Legislature prepares to take up close to $100 million worth of bonds for transportation, clean water projects and research and development. David Trahan of the Sportsman’s Alliance said he’s aware of several conservation projects that may not be completed without a five million dollar cash infusion. A call to the governor’s office was not returned by airtime.
[Editor’s note: Adrienne Bennett, a spokesperson for Gov. LePage contacted MPBN after this story aired on Maine Things Considered and said the Governor’s position on the bonds is that he wants to address spending issues before taking on new borrowing.]