For the first time in at least 15 years, Maine will not compete for a share of funding from a federal program that has been used to conserve more acreage of forestland in Maine than in any state across the country.

The LePage administration’s decision not to apply for federal Forest Legacy funds follows actions by Gov. Paul LePage that have all but shut down the state-run Land for Maine’s Future preservation program.

While administration officials said there is “no connection” between the issues, critics of the governor’s attempts to use LMF bonds as political leverage with lawmakers said they can’t help but see a nexus given LePage’s vocal criticism of land conservation.

“I don’t have an answer except all along he has said he does not believe in the benefits of what we do for the community,” said Wolfe Tone of The Trust for Public Land, which is a major player in conservation efforts in Maine. “I just frankly don’t understand the disconnect.”

Since 1990, Maine has been awarded more than $75 million in Forest Legacy funds to work with private landowners to protect 750,000-plus acres from development. That’s nearly a third of the roughly 2.4 million acres that the program has preserved nationwide. The majority of that acreage in Maine has gone under conservation easements that keep the land in private hands as working forest but extinguish development rights on the property.

STATE: DEFERRAL SEPARATE FROM LMF

“Maine has a little less than one-third of the total acreage of the entire program, so Maine has been very, very successful,” said Neal Bungard, natural resources program leader for the U.S. Forest Service’s northeastern area. “The program is designed around protecting private forestland, which Maine has a lot of.”

The state has submitted applications to the Forest Legacy program every year since at least 2001 and has been awarded funding for projects nearly every year. John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said the state opted not to request funding for fiscal year 2017 but is continuing to implement three projects already approved for Forest Legacy funding and a fourth still awaiting a decision from the federal agency.

“The determination was made to focus on the three projects in the works and the fourth one” still in the pipeline, Bott said. “There is absolutely no connection to LMF.”

But some critics said the timing, in addition to the administration’s stance on conservation issues, suggests otherwise.

Alan Stearns, executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust, who oversaw the Forest Legacy program as deputy director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands until 2011, said the administration has not refilled positions within the bureau as people departed, including Stearns’ former position. That makes it harder for remaining staff to juggle this program along with the bureau’s other responsibilities, Stearns said.

“The clear writing on the wall is the current administration is not interested in aggressively pursuing conservation opportunities,” Stearns said. “It’s hard to say there is no connection when almost every recent (Forest) Legacy project has involved both Legacy money and Land for Maine’s Future money. The federal money requires a local or state match, and the Land for Maine’s Future program has been one source of that match.”

Although separate, the federal Forest Legacy program and the Land for Maine’s Future program are often both used to complete major land conservation projects in the state.

Under Forest Legacy, states can submit applications for up to 75 percent of funding for projects that are evaluated based on a host of criteria, including their importance to forest industry jobs, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreational value. Forest Legacy funds have been used to complete some of the most significant conservation deals in Maine history, ranging from 329,000 acres of working forest surrounding the West Branch of the Penobscot River to Tumbledown Mountain and the forests surrounding West Grand Lake.

Land for Maine’s Future requires project applicants to match LMF funds – provided by the sale of general obligation bonds – at least dollar-for-dollar, so the two programs are often used to meet the requirements of the other.

PROGRAM A NATURAL FOR MAINE

The committee charged with vetting potential Forest Legacy applications has not met since September 2014. Meanwhile, the LePage administration has largely put the brakes on the popular LMF program as the governor tries to pressure lawmakers to support his plan to harvest more timber on state-owned land in order to pay for a new program to help elderly and low-income Mainers heat their homes.

More than 30 projects already endorsed for funding by the LMF board are in limbo because LePage has refused to issue $11.5 million in voter-approved bonds. LePage has repeatedly suggested that LMF-funded projects largely benefit the wealthy – a statement strongly disputed by sportsmen and conservation groups – and vowed to continue withholding the bonds until lawmakers fund his home-heating program.

Others involved in LMF and Forest Legacy projects steered clear of speculating about the situation but expressed surprise or disappointment that no Forest Legacy application was pending this year.

Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine, said Maine often competes so well for Forest Legacy funding because of the program’s focus on working forest. Hutchinson, whose organization often helps broker “landscape-scale” conservation deals and then holds the conservation easements on behalf of the state, also noted that former Maine U.S. Sen. George Mitchell played a key role in the program’s creation.

“It has origins right here in Maine and it fits Maine to a ‘T,’ so this is quite a departure,” Hutchinson said.

‘WE ALWAYS HAVE AT LEAST ONE’

Sherry Huber, a former state lawmaker who has been active in Maine’s forestry and conservation communities for decades, said it was “unfortunate” that Maine opted to not even compete for Forest Legacy funding this year.

“We are the envy of all of the other states,” said Huber, who works with the Maine Timber Research and Environmental Education Foundation but was speaking as an individual. “When we put in projects, it’s not automatic and there is always competition, but ours are always good and we always have at least one that qualifies.”