When Gov. Paul LePage gets something right on land conservation, it’s a little like a broken clock.
Among his many wrongheaded and shortsighted proclamations on the subject is one undeniable truth, that conservation using public funds should benefit the public as a whole. That, in fact, is the core mission of Land for Maine’s Future, the state conservation program that has been so popular and successful exactly because it is so broad.
LePage, however, continues to undermine that mission, all but ensuring that which Mainers benefit will depend on where they live and how they enjoy the outdoors.
LEPAGE’S NARROW VIEW
The governor is throwing his weight behind a project to conserve the Big Six Forest, 23,600 acres along the Quebec border in Somerset County that produces about a quarter of the state’s maple sugar. The landowner, Paul Fortin of Madison, would receive $5.7 million for an easement on the property, some of which would come from Land for Maine’s Future.
The request for state funds would go before the LePage-appointed LMF board, and as reported by the Bangor Daily News, Fortin has given generously to LePage’s political action committee.
Last year, that same board made an 11th-hour cut to state funding already approved to conserve Howard Hill, a 164-acre property near the State House in Augusta, causing one board member to resign in protest.
LePage has been critical of the Howard Hill project, which would benefit the law partner of Republican Sen. Roger Katz, who has frequently butted heads with LePage, raising concerns that state conservation funding is only available to people the governor likes.
There are no further indications of a quid pro quo on the Big Six project. Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, told WVOM last week that LePage’s support predates the campaign contributions, and the project is in line with the few previous LMF projects the governor has gotten behind – that is, it is business-oriented and rural.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be concerned about. Land for Maine’s Future is purposely constructed to satisfy a number of constituencies all connected by a common idea – that some Maine land and waterways are so valuable that they should be protected in perpetuity.
That value can be measured in a few ways, but LePage pays attention to only one. Projects should “promote working waterfronts and forests, which create good-paying jobs for Mainers,” a spokeswoman told the BDN. When projects don’t fit this narrow view, he labels them useless or “corrupt.” He says that they only help a few wealthy landowners, and he withholds voter-approved funding.
That isn’t for LePage to decide – the program is bigger than him. Land for Maine’s Future is meant to leave a legacy of open space accessible to all current and future Mainers, and it should not be upset by the biases of any one person.
In a state with precious little publicly owned land, Land for Maine’s Future has protected more than 600,000 acres.
It has saved a landing in Washington County used by 35 commercial boats a day and a working farm in Scarborough that also hosts educational activities for students. It helped protect a massive forest in Piscataquis County, and the 800-acre Bradbury Mountain State Park just a short drive from Portland.
ACCESS FOR ALL
It has saved deer habitat, hiking and snowmobiling trails. Favorite fishing spots and important farmland. Dock access for fishermen and working forests for loggers.
It doesn’t prioritize one activity or land use or region over another. It is for the benefit of all, whether you live in Portland or Skowhegan, and whether you enjoy remote hiking and snowmobiling or just a walk through the woods.
In addition, it promotes tourism and maintains natural resources, two sectors immutably linked to each other, and to the future of our state.
Land for Maine’s Future does all that through a process that draws on vast expertise to identify those lands most valuable to Mainers and most in need of protection, usually from the forces of development.
Through his narrow view of the program, the governor has disrupted that process in a way that could be felt long after his administration is over.
As the board of directors prepares to review another round of conservation requests, it is important that they follow the wishes of all Maine people, not just the one in the Blaine House.