AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has accepted $1.7 million in federal funding for a 13,875-acre conservation project in Piscataquis County, adding to criticism that he is handpicking conservation deals from those already approved by an independent board.

In this case, the project involves a prominent landowner and forest products company that are significant donors to LePage’s re-election committee.

Known as the Gulf Hagas-Whitecap project, it is one of more than 30 conservation deals within the Land for Maine’s Future program awaiting $11.5 million in voter-approved funding that the governor is withholding. He is using it as leverage to convince state lawmakers to go along with his plan to harvest more timber on public lands and use the revenue generated to help fund heating programs for low-income Mainers. The governor’s timber harvest proposal is expected to be released early next week.

John Bott, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said the decision to accept federal funds for Gulf Hagas-Whitecap does not mean that the governor also will release $500,000 in Land for Maine’s Future funding for the project.

“He’s stressing to everyone involved in the project that this acceptance of federal money is by no means a signal that he will release the LMF bonds,” Bott said.

He said the decision to accept the federal money through the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy program was made because the grant expires at the end of the current fiscal year. The Forest Legacy program encourages the use of conservation easements to preserve working forests, wildlife habitat, watershed protection and recreational opportunities.

According to grant documents, the Gulf Hagas-Whitecap project is a partnership between the Forest Society of Maine, the state Bureau of Parks and Lands, and the Richard and Jimmy Carrier family. The Carriers are part of a large family that owns trucking and logging companies in the state. They also own large parcels of land in Maine, but the total acreage is unknown.

Between 2012 and 2014, Richard Carrier and Richard Carrier Trucking donated over $3,000 to the governor’s re-election committee. Other members of the Carrier family, as well as E.J. Carrier Inc., in Jackman, donated over $8,100 to LePage’s 2014 re-election committee, according to state campaign finance records. Federal Elections Committee data shows that the Carrier family is also active in congressional campaigns, primarily benefiting Republican candidates.

PICKING AND CHOOSING PROJECTS

The Gulf Hagas-Whitecap project is within what’s known as the 100-Mile Wilderness. It’s designed to conserve several thousand acres of managed forests, four mountain peaks greater than 3,000 feet and 5 miles of the West Branch of the Pleasant River.

A conservation easement would allow public access for recreational activity, including camping, hiking, fishing, hunting and snowmobiling. The Carrier family would continue to manage the forestland, harvesting hardwoods, spruce and fir for paper mills. The family employs about 600 people within the six companies it owns across the state.

Critics of the governor’s decision to withhold voter-approved bonding for LMF projects said Gulf Hagas-Whitecap is a model project. However, they’re concerned that the governor is handpicking some projects even though 30 proposals qualifying for state funding have been ratified by the LMF board. The board consists almost entirely of the governor’s appointees, as well as three members of his Cabinet.

In March, the governor told a gathering in Cumberland that he planned to personally review and choose conservation and public easement projects before funding them with voter-approved bonds.

“I’m going to look at them one by one,” he said. “Some will make it, some won’t.”

The LePage administration has not said what criteria the governor plans to use while judging the projects.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the House majority leader, acknowledged that Gulf Hagas-Whitecap was worthwhile. However, he said, the governor’s decision to accept the federal funding could send the wrong signal to landowners involved in other LMF projects in the pipeline.

“For me the biggest concern is that I don’t want to see the administration cherry-pick projects,” McCabe said. “The funding needs to go out like the LMF board objectively ranked these projects. I think when we cherry-pick projects, it puts the whole program at risk.”

VOTER-APPROVED FUNDS STILL WITHHELD

Bott said the federal funding for Gulf Hagas-Whitecap is not contingent on a state-level commitment. He said the state had to authorize the federal money or it could have been kept by the federal government.

“(LePage) is allowing the federal funding because there’s a timing limitation,” Bott said.

He said LePage will stick to his plan to use LMF bonds as leverage with the Legislature.

“LMF funding will not be released until the Legislature completes action on the governor’s legislation to use funds from timber harvesting on state land to assist low-income Mainers with their heating costs,” Bott said.

The governor’s decision has frustrated lawmakers. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has submitted a bill that would circumvent the governor’s authority to sign off on bonds already approved by voters. The public hearing is Monday.

Details of the governor’s proposal have not been released. However, the administration has indicated that the plan is designed to increase annual harvesting on state-owned lands from 141,500 cords to 180,000 cords, an increase of about 27 percent, and to divert about $5 million in harvesting revenue to home-heating programs.

Conservation groups have objected to the move, arguing that the governor already has broken his 2013 promise to release the LMF bonds after the Legislature ratified his plan to pay back Maine hospitals for Medicaid debt. Lawmakers complied, and now LePage is leveraging the LMF bonds for a different policy initiative.

“Most of the money he is now holding up is exactly the same money that he held up once before,” Tim Glidden, the former director of the LMF board and now director of the Maine Heritage Coast Trust, told the Press Herald in March.

Bott said the deadline for LMF funding for Gulf Hagas-Whitecap falls in the first or second quarter of fiscal 2017.

Established in 1987, the Land for Maine’s Future program has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres throughout the state. The program is popular with conservationists, hunting and fishing groups, and private landowners because it keeps land in private hands – and therefore on the tax rolls – but uses conservation easements to guarantee public access for hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor recreation.

Roughly 315,000 of the 500,000 acres were working forests, farmland and commercial waterfront.