Clayton Haskell needed land to expand his beef operation at Pleasant River Farm in Windham to supply meat to Saint Joseph’s College in Standish.
So when 217 acres of the Clark family farm a mile away became available at the bargain basement price of $200,000 through the Maine Farmland Trust last year, he snapped it up.
“It could not have worked at a higher price,” said Haskell.
The Windham parcel, now protected with an easement to forever keep it farmland, involves 217 of the millions of acres of Maine land saved from redevelopment in the past year.
Land conservationists say 2011 was a banner year for preservation in the state. Despite the down economy, the land-protection business is booming in Maine and has been on a roll since 2005.
Not only does Maine lead other New England states in the pace of conservation, it has jumped to second place nationally in the number of acres protected by private land trusts, according to a survey by the Land Trust Alliance. Released in November, the survey concluded that Maine’s 88 land trusts had protected 1.8 million acres by the end of 2010.
Since then, more than a million additional acres have been protected by land trusts and others. Media mogul and conservationist John Malone bought 1 million acres of Maine timberland last winter to retain as working forest, according to those involved in the deal. It made him owner of more than 5 percent of Maine’s 22 million-acre land mass.
In 2011, Maine Coast Heritage Trust conserved 15 miles of shoreline, or more than 2,000 acres, along the Maine coast, and the Maine Farmland Trust protected 5,681 agricultural acres.
The Maine Department of Conservation added 5,551 acres to the state’s holdings, which now total 681,729 acres of parks and public lands.
“It was a great year,” said Angela Twitchell, executive director of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust.
In 2011, the midcoast organization protected 194 acres overlooking Maquoit Bay.
Land conservationists attribute some of the brisk business to a tax benefit for conservation easements that expired Dec. 31.
Landowners were rushing to take advantage of the benefit before it ran out, said Richard Knox, communications director at Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
Some of the conserved land includes large tracts owned by paper companies in the north woods. The companies allowed trusts to buy certain development rights, protecting the land from development while the companies continue to work the land using sustainable practices.
But the main reason for increased preservation, Knox said, is landowners’ desire to keep land intact.
“Maine landowners have a long tradition of caring for the land,” he said.
The gloomy real estate market works both ways when it comes to land conservation, Knox said.
It may push some people with large real estate holdings to sell their development rights in order to raise cash, while others will hold off, hoping to get better prices.
Some land preservationists expect the good times to continue in 2012. John Piotti, executive director of Maine Farmland Trust, said 2011 was the second-best year ever for his organization and he expects next year to be even better as deals long in the works come to fruition.
One of the latest deals, clinched last week, include donated easements on 154 acres of farmland on the Kennebunk River in Kennebunk.
The land is owned by Tom’s of Maine founders Tom and Kate Chappell, who now operate Rambler’s Way, a sheep farm and wool clothing business.
In another deal, the farmland trust closed Friday on the Varnum Farm in Sebec, which includes more than 2,000 prime agricultural acres.
Will Harris, director of the state Bureau of Parks and Lands at the Department of Conservation, said he expects conservation deals to slow down.
The last $9 million bond approved by voters is spent. There appears to be little appetite to ask voters to approve more conservation bonds anytime soon in the current economic climate.
“But I am pretty pleased with what we have gotten, and folks in Maine can be pretty pleased with the amount and quality of public land available,” Harris said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: