AUGUSTA — Supporters of the Land for Maine’s Future program used the first regular day of the deer hunting season and the expiration of $6.47 million in voter-approved bonds to urge Gov. Paul LePage to halt his efforts to suspend the popular land conservation program.

The Land for Maine’s Future Coalition, a group of 175 organizations, state lawmakers and sportsmen, is a response to the governor’s use of the LMF program as leverage for an unrelated policy. On Monday, the group gathered at the State House to highlight the impact of the politically charged controversy on one of the state’s key constituencies: hunters and fishermen.

Since 1987, the LMF program has used voter-approved bonds to conserve and provide public access to more than 570,000 acres of forests, farms and waterfront. A significant portion of the conserved land has benefited Maine sportsmen and in 2012 the LMF program was amended to include projects to protect wildlife habitat, deer yards and trout spawning grounds.

“I don’t often deal with politics, but this is one thing that I was willing to give up a day of hunting for,” said David Allen.

Allen said he caught his first trout in Cold Stream in Penobscot County. He said he is worried the area will become closed to the public if the Legislature doesn’t vote to extend the life of the bonds that expired Monday. The Cold Stream Forest Project is one of three projects designed to protect 8,500 acres of deer wintering yards and maintain public access for fishermen.

‘VOICE OF THE VOTERS’

The sportsman-oriented projects are among dozens currently on hold because the governor has refused to authorize more than $11.5 million in bonds that were approved by voters in 2010 and 2012. The bonds that expired Monday can be revived and extended for up to five years.

Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, has submitted a bill that would reauthorize the bonds for two years.

“The voice of the voters has been held hostage too long and that is unacceptable,” he said.

LePage has immobilized the LMF program in an effort to pressure lawmakers to support an unrelated initiative that would increase logging on the state’s public lands and use the money to help needy families heat their homes in the winter.

Pouliot is one of several Republicans who have voiced opposition to the governor’s use of the LMF program as a bargaining chip. Other Republicans, including Rep. Kenneth Fredette, the House minority leader from Newport, have helped LePage defeat a measure designed to force the governor to authorize the bonds. On Oct. 22, Fredette and the assistant minority leader, Rep. Ellie Espling of New Gloucester, both voted against allowing Pouliot’s proposal to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session. Nonetheless, the measure received an 8-2 endorsement by the Legislative Council, which means it will be debated and decided next year.

Pouliot’s bill is one of two proposals designed to return LMF to full strength. The other, L.D. 1454, was originally introduced by LePage and would have extended the bonds by seven months. However, Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the House majority leader, amended the proposal with language that would compel the governor to authorize the 2010 bonds.

The bill was held by the governor, which means he’ll have three days to either sign or veto the proposal after the Legislature convenes in January. The governor is expected to veto the bill, setting the stage for a vote that will determine the fate of the bill while testing the growing belief that Republicans, particularly those in rural districts, will face electoral consequences if they don’t revitalize the program.

A recent poll commissioned by the Land for Maine’s Future Coalition – a group of more than 200 communities, conservation groups, businesses and nonprofit organizations – suggests the program has broad public support.

POLITICAL PRESSURE BUILDS

According to the polling firms – one Republican and the other Democratic – 74 percent of respondents said LePage should release voter-approved bond funds, versus only 16 percent opposed. And 79 percent of participants opposed withholding funds because of a political debate on a separate issue. The poll of 500 registered Maine voters – Democrats, Republicans and unenrolled in proportions roughly representative of Maine’s voter demographics – had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

McCabe and David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said Monday that the political pressure is building.

Trahan said that hunting contributes $363 million in economic impact and creates 4,000 jobs in some of the most rural and poorest areas of the state.

“While the governor continues his bond hostage crisis, once-in-a-lifetime investments in rural Maine jobs and wildlife are drawing dangerously close to collapse,” he said.

Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, said the politicization of LMF will be noticed by private investors involved in the conservation deals.

“What I know for a fact is that private donations and investment goes where it’s wanted,” Corey said. “Right now with LMF bonds expiring in Maine today, we are showing these private entities that their money is not wanted here, that holding voter-approved bonds in exchange for wholly unrelated legislation matters more than investment in our future.”

LePage has given mixed messages about LMF, simultaneously asserting that he supports the program while saying that it rewards “rich organizations with wealthy donors and big corporate benefactors.”

The governor has taken several steps that have prevented the LMF board of directors from reviewing and approving projects. In September, he moved to freeze more than $2.2 million in LMF funds that were already diverted to the program. He later tried to seize private donations to LMF, prompting a revolt by the board of directors, some of whom lashed out at the governor during a Sept. 15 board meeting.

Last week, the LMF board learned that the governor moved to release the $2.2 million. However, most of advocates of the program did not view the move as a peace offering.

“That was something that was long overdue,” McCabe said. “On the way to the State House I stopped at a stop sign because that’s something I’m expected to do. Nobody came and gave me a reward.”