By The BDN Editorial Board
Bangor Daily News editorial
With little explanation, the LePage administration has decided not to pursue federal conservation money the state has used for decades to maintain working forestland while ensuring public recreational access.
This move comes after Gov. Paul LePage earlier this year essentially shut down the state’s Land for Maine’s Future program, a homegrown land conservation effort with an emphasis on public access.
This has led local land trusts, landowners and outdoor recreation groups scratching their heads and scrambling to find alternate funding sources to complete conservation projects that have been years in the making. This is a dangerous path because, without the state at the table, the emphasis on public access to these lands may not be guaranteed.
John Bott, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said the state is not pursuing Forest Legacy funding in fiscal year 2017 because it is working on projects that received funding in years past, but it will consider a 2018 application. The state has long had projects in different stages of completion, but that hasn’t stopped it from applying for new funds. Conservation groups and landowners take on most of the work to complete these projects, not the state.
The decision not to pursue Forest Legacy funding is the latest in a series of LePage administration actions that undermine conservation efforts that consistently have the goal of preserving the public’s access to land. In the case of the Forest Legacy program, which uses federal revenue from offshore oil and gas royalties, the LePage administration is standing in the way of efforts that can ensure more of Maine’s forests are set aside as working forestland.
Concerned by the changing ownership of timberlands in western Maine, for example, a group of local residents in recent years created the High Peaks Alliance to protect traditional access to local fishing holes, snowmobile trails and other important landscapes.
Working with the Trust for Public Land and with the help of Forest Legacy funds, the alliance and a range of partners, including snowmobile clubs, have conserved thousands of acres between Bigelow Mountain and the Saddleback ski area.
The group’s latest project also relies on Forest Legacy funding. The alliance is seeking an easement on more than 6,000 acres of working forestland around Perham Stream. Wood from the land supplies four area mills, but there’s no guarantee of public access. If conserved, wood harvesting would continue and public access would be guaranteed. The parcel also would connect several other conserved parcels, allowing for the creation of long-distance snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle and hiking trails.
The project last year received a stamp of approval from the committee within the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands that reviews potential Forest Legacy Projects. But LePage did not sign the required letter to formally submit the project to the U.S. Forest Service.
The news for the Perham Stream project got worse last week when the administration said it would not be submitting any projects to the Forest Service for the next round of funding.
“There are no state tax dollars involved. For the state to refuse to participate [in the Forest Legacy program] is nonsensical,” Milt Baston, a selectman in Strong and president of the High Peaks Alliance, said. “Forest Legacy is the most direct route for our goals of maintaining traditional recreational access.”
The alliance is looking at alternatives funding sources to complete the project.
Another project, called Gulf Hagas-White Cap, received $1.7 million from the Forest Legacy program this year. It preserves public access to prime brook trout fishing waters, and the project is likely to increase local employment. The Carrier family will sell 1,200 acres along the Pleasant River to the state as part of the deal, along with an easement on 7,200 acres of forestland. The family, which runs forestry and trucking companies that employ 600 Mainers, will use the money from these sales to buy more forestland to expand its operations.
Because Maine has so much working forestland, it has, by far, the most land protected through the Forest Legacy program. Maine has received more than $75 million from the program since 1990, protecting more than 750,000 acres of land through conservation easements and purchases.
By sitting out the next round of Forest Legacy Funding, Maine guarantees that money that could have come here to protect timberland and jobs and ensure public access to hunting grounds, trails and fishing streams will go elsewhere.