By Steve Mistler
Maine Public news story
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is backing a $95 million bond proposal for the Land for Maine Future program and improvements at state-owned parks and historic sites, although she says the total amount of the package could shrink.
The borrowing package was recommended by a coalition of groups connected with the state’s outdoor economy, who believe it will restore some of the progress Maine’s land conservation efforts have lost in recent years.
The conservation bond would pump $75 million into Land for Maine’s Future, the state’s premier conservation program, and another $20 million for improvements at state parks and historic sites. It was described by supporters including Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine Director David Trahan as a proposal that makes up for lost time and also seizes the moment.
Trahan was part of the stakeholder group that met last year to discuss ways to improve and update land conservation efforts in a state that was once considered a leader.
“And in the end, I believe we’ve produced a product that will get land conservation in Maine back on track,” he said.
As the leader of SAM, a hunting and fishing organization, Trahan often found himself at odds with Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who took a dim view of land conservation efforts and spent his final years in office targeting LMF, a program that leverages voter-approved bond money to draw private investment and create easements on properties that would otherwise remain closed to the public.
In his final State of the State address last year, LePage downplayed the economic significance of preserving land and frequently labeled LMF as a taxpayer-fund boondoggle that benefited rich landowners.
“The desire preserve land without benefit to the taxpayer, or their input, is out of control. We must restore balance,” LePage said in the address.
But supporters of LMF believe now is the time for their own rebalancing efforts.
LePage’s withering attacks on the program, including an audit that failed to back his assertions about LMF, had political ramifications in the Legislature, leaving some longtime Republican conservationists cowed when it came time to send conservation bond proposals to voters.
The last LMF bond for $5 million was last approved in 2012, and the remaining money in the program — at one point halted by LePage when he used it to extract unrelated policy concessions — is already committed to projects approved by the LMF board.
And that’s one reason for the dollar amount of the bond that became the centerpiece of the study produced by the outdoor economy group that met last year.
The other reason is Mills, who has vowed to make LMF and conservation a priority of her administration.
“I was surprised to learn that Maine is not as ahead of the curve as I thought we were in terms of conserving lands. We’ve got so much of it to do,” she said during a press conference showcasing the bond proposal on Tuesday.
But the issue is also detailed in the report by the stakeholder group. It found that of the state’s over 20 million acres, roughly 4 million acres have been conserved for public access — over one million acres less than the rest of the other New England states combined, even though that region is roughly equal to Maine in terms of land mass.
Democratic state Sen. Cathy Breen of Falmouth said now is the time to gain ground lost over the previous eight years.
Breen, who is sponsoring the bond bill, said the proposal it isn’t just about recreation or preserving habitat for hunting and fishing.
“We want to make sure that these natural resources are available, not only for people’s enjoyment, but quite literally for people’s profit so that we can continue to have a really robust resource-based economy in Maine and bring the next generation into those profitable enterprises,” she said.
Breen’s bill has over 100 co-sponsors, a lot of horsepower for a bond that’s competing with $1.5 billion worth of proposals that lawmakers are considering sending to voters next fall.
And, of course, the conservation bond also has Mills’ backing — although the governor acknowledged that its overall size could shrink as lawmakers weed through a number of other borrowing requests, including those for transportation and infrastructure.