Senator Breen, Representative Pierce, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs, I am Melanie Sturm, the Forests and Wildlife Director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), and I appreciate the opportunity to provide testimony in support of LD 983. In addition to my testimony, I am attaching a petition with nearly 800 signatures from Mainers who support the Land for Maine’s Future program (LMF) and investments in Maine State Parks.
LMF is Maine’s most effective land conservation program. Over the past three decades, the program has helped fund more than 300 projects and protect more than 600,000 acres spanning all 16 Maine counties. LMF supports conservation and recreation projects for activities ranging from biking to birding, fly casting to cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling to swimming. LMF also provides one of the few funding options available for land conservation, often in the form of conservation easements, to conserve working farmland, working timberlands, and commercial fishing operations that depend on working waterfronts. LMF projects are diverse and benefit all Mainers, as well as many natural resource- based businesses.
Maine people have consistently shown their strong support for land conservation at the ballot box, passing six ballot measures to fund LMF since 1987.
While we recognize that the Appropriations Committee is considering a significant number of bond proposals, we encourage you to support LD 983 because it is well matched to what the need is for both the LMF program and State Parks over the next five years.
Despite its success and public support, the last LMF bond passed in 2012, and the program has essentially run out of money. Without additional funding, many important conservation opportunities will be lost that would help protect fish and wildlife habitat and natural resources, sequester and store carbon, enhance and expand recreational access, and provide economic benefits to communities both from tourism and from lands managed for timber, agriculture, and marine resources.
Funding LMF is a smart investment for the state. Virtually every significant land conservation project in recent decades has required funding from multiple sources, including state, federal, and private funds. However, most of the time funds from one source need to be matched with funds from other sources. LMF funding plays a critical role in leveraging federal and private funds that can make land conservation projects possible. Every $1 spent by the State of Maine using LMF funds is matched, approximately, by $3 of private and federal funds.
We believe that a multi-year bond will be a more effective strategy for the type of work that LMF supports, because many land conservation projects take multiple years to complete. Many landowners and organizations are reluctant to invest the time and money in putting together a land conservation project if they do not know that there will be public funding available in the future.
Now is a particularly good time to fund LMF because it can serve as match for federal programs, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF was fully and permanently funded last year and provides grants for the acquisition and development of public outdoor recreation areas and facilities. Maine stands to draw an estimated $40 million per year in federal funds from federal programs, such as LWCF, to conserve working forests and ensure public access to the outdoors if we have matching funds, which LMF can provide.
Though the State and cooperating entities have made a great deal of progress on land conservation in recent years, there is much left to do as demand continues to increase for Maine real estate, pressures mount on natural resource-based businesses in the state, and climate change among other threats test our natural systems. NRCM strongly supports a significant land bond of $60 million to enable LMF to continue its great conservation work.
We also strongly support a $20 million bond for Maine State Parks. In 2019, the Land Conservation Task Force called for “creating a dedicated source of revenue to address ongoing capital needs.” LD 983 answers that call.
Maine State Parks are in critical need of investment. They face $50 million of deferred maintenance that has accrued over years of being underfunded. For years, Maine State Parks have provided positive experiences for millions of visitors annually on a slim budget, but that way of operating is not sustainable, especially when our State Parks are more popular than ever. In 2020, our State Parks had a record-breaking year, surpassing three million visitors. 2021 is on track to be just as busy if campground reservations are any indication. This is a testament to the important role of State Parks to Maine residents and visitors. The last time Maine State Parks received bond funding for capital improvements was in 2010, and any funding that has been made available in the interim has only been for minor projects. Investing in upgrades to Maine’s State Parks will help ensure that millions of visitors have positive experiences and make plans to return, which is positive for them and positive for Maine’s economy.
We respectfully urge the Committee to vote Ought to Pass on LD 983 to send a bond question to voters on the November ballot. Thank you for your time and consideration of this issue, and I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.