September 16, 2019

Paying to Preserve

The Land for Maine’s Future program has spent all its money, as it was supposed to, on land conservation projects throughout Maine. So, the time has come to replenish the worthy program’s coffers.

It is unclear how many proposals will be considered by the Legislature to fund LMF, but there should be no doubt that the program needs more money to continue its work. That money will come in the form of a bond issue to be put out to voters later this year. A bond should be supported by lawmakers soon and voters later.

Since its inception in 1987, LMF has completed more than 115 projects, ranging from the purchase of 1.8 acres to preserve access to the ocean for commercial fishermen in Machiasport to participation in the purchase of land and easements to protect 650,000 acres near the West Branch of the Penobscot River. Initially, the program only helped fund the purchase of land and easements by state agencies. For two years, it has also funded such purchases by towns and local land trusts. It has completed projects in every county.

Through strong voter support of bond issues, the program received $35 million in 1987 and $50 million in 1999. Gov. John Baldacci stands firmly behind his campaign pledge to support a $100 million bond for land preservation, although the total may come in more than one piece during his term in office.

Initially, opponents of LMF charged that the state should not take land from private property owners to preserve it. (It buys land and easements only from willing sellers.) Now a much more muted argument is made that there is enough protected land already set aside in Maine. When local residents can’t access a nearby lake for boating and fishing and when snowmobilers have to travel great distances to find trails to ride, this clearly is not the case. State agencies and private organizations have preserved more than 2 million acres of land, mostly in northern Maine, in recent years. Still, the amount of public land in Maine remains among the lowest in the country.

Despite its success, the LMF program can be strengthened. Two areas that warrant close consideration by lawmakers are provisions that money be set aside to manage properties or easements that are purchased and that matching money be raised to qualify for LMF dollars. On the latter, groups seeking LMF funds must, in aggregate, raise 50 cents for every $1 they get from the state program. Many granting agencies require at least a one-for-one match, a target LMF officials say most projects actually reach despite the lower requirement.

As for monitoring, many local land trusts have begun to establish endowments to manage property they acquire. In addition, recent large purchases involving LMF money, such as the purchase of land and easements along the Machias River, include money for management of the property. In this case, The Nature Conservancy raised $1 million for such an endowment. This is a model that should be emulated with all LMF-backed transactions.

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