AUGUSTA — More than two dozen land conservation projects will compete for more than $4.5 million in Land for Maine’s Future funding during the program’s first open application process in three years.

The 26 projects seek to protect properties ranging from a few dozen acres in the midcoast to a 23,000-acre parcel in western Maine that reportedly features one of the nation’s largest “sugar bushes” for maple syrup. However, the precise location of the projects and amount of money being sought by each application was not disclosed by the program. Those and other details are considered confidential under state purchasing policies until projects are selected for funding.

All told, the applicants are seeking $7 million from Land for Maine’s Future, a program that provides matching funds for projects that conserve natural areas and recreation lands, farms and working waterfronts.

“We’re encouraged by the level of support out there and we’re not entirely surprised,” Jeff Romano with the Maine Coast Heritage Trust said of the number of applicants for the limited funding. “The Legislature and the governor have not supported a bond measure for many years now, so there is a lot of built-up demand out there.”

When the LMF board meets on Nov. 7 and 9, it will be the first time a new round of finalists for funding will have been selected since the popular conservation program became embroiled in political controversy 2½ years ago. In March 2015, Republican Gov. Paul LePage – a vocal critic of conservation programs that use public funding – sought to use bonds for the LMF program as a bargaining chip with lawmakers as he sought legislative support for a plan to increase timber harvesting on state-owned lands.

The political tensions over the program have since eased, although there has not been an LMF bond measure since 2012. The $4.3 million now available comes from unexpended portions of two bond packages approved by voters in 2009 and 2011.

November’s meeting also will also be the first time LMF’s new board – comprised entirely of recent LePage appointees or members of his Cabinet – begins the process of deciding which projects receive funding, and how much.

Director Sarah Demers released a list of the names of funding applicants and a total dollar figure for the requests – $6,991,065 – but cited state statutes in declining to provide further details of the projects.

“According to the state’s Division of Purchases policies, all proposals are confidential until notification of award by the contracting agency, after which time they become public record,” Demers wrote in an email. “The board will be meeting publicly on November 7th … to review the proposals, hear presentations from applicants and adjust their scores for each proposal. The board will then meet on November 9 and go into executive session to select finalists and make the financial allocations for each project.”

Maine’s conservation community will be closely watching how the board handles one particular application, the so-called “Big Six Forest.”

Sought by landowner Paul Fortin and supported by several major conservation organizations, the Big Six Forest features 23,056 acres in a remote section of Somerset County along the Maine-Canada border.

The project already has received approval for $3.8 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy program, which requires applicants to match every $3 in federal funds with $1 from non-federal sources. The Trust for Public Land, a national organization, is working on behalf of Fortin and the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands to secure $1.2 million in LMF funding.

The Big Six Forest is home to 4,000 acres of sugar maples that, according to the applicant, is the largest “sugar bush” – a collection of tapped maple trees – in the country. The Big Six sugar bush reportedly accounts for 19 percent of Maine’s maple syrup production.

The project is already receiving some scrutiny, however, because of limited access to the land from the U.S. side. All projects that receive funding through LMF’s “conservation and recreation” program are required to provide public access for hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities. Fortin is a political and financial supporter of LePage, who has previously claimed that the program primarily benefits wealthy landowners.

J.T. Horn, senior project manager at the Trust for Public Land, said he looked forward to presenting the project to the public.

“We really view it as a continuation of the long-standing work to protect key tracts in the northern forest region and in the north Maine woods,” Horn said Thursday. “This property sits at the western boundary of the Penobscot watershed, where there has been a tremendous amount of conservation investment, and the St. John River watershed, where there has also been a tremendous amount of conservation investment.”

While the Big Six Forest application is seeking $1.2 million of the more than $4 million in available funding, past LMF boards have often opted to spread limited funding across more projects by only partially funding many requests.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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