AUGUSTA — A legislative committee voted Tuesday to recommend three new appointments to the Land for Maine’s Future board, although not before subjecting one LePage administration nominee to closer scrutiny.
The Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee voted unanimously to endorse Bob Meyers of Bath and Fred Bucklin of Appleton to serve on the LMF board, which reviews funding requests for land conservation projects. Meyers is executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, while Bucklin is a professional real estate appraiser who operates Bucklin Appraisal LLC.
The committee also voted 10-3 to endorse the nomination of Harry Ricker, a Turner apple farmer whose family runs Ricker Hill Orchards.
But while Meyers and Bucklin breezed through the nomination hearing, Ricker faced some probing questions from some committee members about his conservation experience and views about the LMF program. Ricker is also the stepbrother of Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, a Turner Republican who is a close ally of Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
LePage nominated the three men after a roughly yearlong freeze on LMF funds. A vocal critic of the program and of Maine’s land conservation community, LePage held off selling $11.5 million in voter-approved bonds for LMF as he attempted to use the issue as leverage with lawmakers to support a home heating assistance program.
That contentious debate, which contributed to a backlog of approved projects awaiting funding, was clearly a backdrop in some of the questioning of Ricker, although it was only mentioned in passing.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, asked Ricker whether he believes he would be able to “stand by some of decisions that were already made by previous board members and push the program forward.” Current LMF board members have strongly criticized the governor’s use of the LMF funds as a political bargaining chip.
“I’m hopeful in my abilities,” Ricker said. “I don’t have any inside information. I just feel comfortable in my people abilities and hope that I can help out the situation.”
Ricker called LMF “a great program” that he has supported since its inception in the 1980s. None of Ricker Hill Orchards’ land is conserved through LMF, but he credited the program with helping to preserve farmland and the rural character of Maine.
But Rep. Donald Marean, R-Hollis, said he was bothered by Ricker’s statement in a questionnaire submitted to the committee that he was most interested in the board position because he wanted to ensure the public’s money is spent wisely.
Ricker’s nomination was supported by the Maine Farm Bureau and the Maine Forest Products Council. Meyers, who is a well-known figure in Augusta because of his involvement in the state’s large snowmobile industry, received support from a range of business, environmental and conservation groups.
The nominations now go to the Senate for final action.
Established in 1987, the Land for Maine’s Future program has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres of working forests, farmland and commercial working waterfronts through land sales or conservation easements. Project applicants must match every dollar from the state with private or federal money, and all conservation land projects must provide access to the public for recreational activities such as hiking, hunting or fishing.