The Land for Maine’s Future board will decide the fate this week of more than two dozen conservation projects, including a 23,600-acre proposal north of Jackman mired in debate over public access, political influence and maple syrup.

Twenty-six projects are competing for a slice of roughly $4 million in the first competition for new Land for Maine’s Future funding in three years. Observers will be watching closely to see how the LMF board – most of whom are recent appointees – handles a project that supporters argue is critical to Maine’s maple syrup industry but that critics contend isn’t worth the $1.25 million the owner and the LePage administration are seeking.

“Doesn’t matter how many times I look at it, it just doesn’t make any economic sense,” said Bill Jarvis, a Jackman forest land manager and outspoken opponent of the LMF project.

Located along a remote stretch of the Maine-Quebec border northeast of Jackman, the Big Six Forest encompasses 17,000 acres of traditional working forest but also 4,500 acres of maple trees that represent one of the largest “sugarbushes” in the country. Another 2,000 acres are made up of wetlands.

Four years ago, the estimated 340,000 “taps” collecting sap from sugar maple trees on Big Six lands produced 110,000 gallons of maple syrup with a retail value of more than $6 million. Those Big Six taps accounted for 24 percent of Maine’s syrup production and 3.4 percent of total U.S. production. And project supporters claim Big Six Maple syrup operations – many based in neighboring Canada – have been collecting sap from the area for more than a century.

Yet the landowner has said he may have to cut down the maple sugarbush or subdivide parts of the Big Six into camp lots – or both – to pay his mortgage if the conservation deal falls through.

“The Big Six Forest, if conserved, will add significantly to the large protected working forest land-base of the region, and provides a unique opportunity to protect a cornerstone of Maine’s maple sugar industry, both important components of Maine’s economy and cultural identity,” reads a 2014 application for federal conservation funding.

Landowner Paul Fortin of Madison is seeking $6 million for a 23,600-acre conservation easement – or roughly $250 an acre – that would extinguish any development rights on the land while permanently guaranteeing public access for recreation. Fortin would retain ownership of the land as well as the right to conduct sustainable timber harvesting and maple syrup operations.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $3.8 million in Forest Legacy funds to Fortin and The Trust for Public Land for the conservation project. But that money is contingent on project backers coming up with the remaining $2.2 million in matching funds to cover the $6 million project cost.

And that’s where supporters hope the Land for Maine’s Future program will come into play.

The Trust for Public Lands and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry are now seeking $1.25 million (roughly one-quarter of the total pot of available money) from the LMF program for the Big Six project.

PRACTICAL, POLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS

But Big Six’s remoteness – at least from the Maine side of the border – makes it more challenging to access for outdoor recreation, which is a primary purpose of the LMF program.

While the land is accessible from Maine by private logging roads, the easiest and most popular route for reaching this corner of Maine’s North Woods is to cross into Canada at the border station near Jackman and then back into Maine again at a small border station at St. Aurelie, Quebec. And to do that, visitors now need either a passport or a passport card.

Somerset County Commissioner Lloyd Trafton has a lengthy list of concerns about the Big Six project, including the cost to taxpayers and ease of access from Maine.

“I just don’t feel the state should be spending their money on this type of thing,” said Trafton, who refused to join his four commissioner colleagues on a letter endorsing the project. “I think money should go to property that the state is going to procure, that the state owns, not to subsidize it … I think it is difficult to get into for the Maine public, and there is really no significant public use of it.”

Others have raised concerns about the fact that the majority of the maple syrup emanating from Big Six’s sugarbush is shipped to other states for final processing and packaging, where it is sold as a “Product of the U.S.A.,” not from Maine. Also, many of those collecting the sap each spring are Canadian workers, some of whose families have worked the land for generations.

And then there are the suggestions of political connections.

Fortin, the landowner from Madison, or his company, PR Fortin & Sons, have donated $27,500 to Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s campaigns or a political action committee established by LePage, the ICE PAC, since 2016.

LePage has been an outspoken critic of LMF and other land preservation programs, oftentimes suggesting that taxpayer dollars are flowing to wealthy landowners or conservation groups. Yet the LePage administration is actively supporting Fortin’s LMF proposal.

Fortin did not return calls seeking comment on the Big Six application but has said previously that there is no quid pro quo from the LePage administration for his political support for the governor.

SUPPORT FROM CONSERVATIONISTS

The Big Six project has earned the backing of numerous conservation organizations – including The Nature Conservancy, which owns more than 160,000 acres in the region – as well as from outdoor recreation groups such as the Maine Snowmobile Association and the Maine Professional Guides Association.

As senior project manager for The Trust for Public Land, a major player on the national conservation scene, J.T. Horn has helped shepherd the Big Six project through the Forest Legacy and now the LMF processes.

“The property has multiple values: it fills in critical wildlife habitat for Canada lynx (a threatened species) and it fills in parts of the conservation map in the St. John watershed and the Penobscot watershed,” Horn said. “But I think what is unique about Big Six is the maple sugaring.”

The Trust worked with Fortin on previous Maine projects and was approached about four years ago to help find an alternative to his plans to cut the Big Six sugarbush for timber.

While Horn acknowledged that much of the syrup is ultimately sold to wholesalers in New Hampshire or Vermont, he pointed out that the same thing happens for much of the timber harvested in Maine. Yet few people would argue it isn’t worth protecting the Maine-based jobs involved in cutting timber headed to mills in Canada or other states.

The reality is that products – whether softwood logs or maple syrup – move to where the markets are located.

“We believe these working forest properties are important to the regional economy, and about one-third of the syrup (from Big Six) is processed by Maine Maple Products in Madison. So these are important jobs,” Horn said. “When we do working forest projects, we are not trying to tell the loggers where to sell their logs. And we are not trying to tell maple syrup producers where to sell their syrup.”

‘A LOT OF GOOD PROJECTS COMPETING’

Big Six is one of 26 projects competing for a slice of just over $4 million in LMF funding. Those projects are asking for $7 million in funds, meaning board members will have to decide whether to partially fulfill a larger number of requests or write a few bigger checks and send more projects away empty-handed.

“It’s a good project, and there are a lot of good projects competing for limited funding,” said Tom Abello, a senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy, which supports the Big Six project. “We want the board to weigh each project on its own merits.”

For most of the LMF board members – all of whom are LePage appointees or members of his Cabinet – this will be their first round of project reviews and funding awards.

“Conservation and recreation” projects will be scored on about a dozen criteria, including the “accessibility of the land for its intended use,” its proximity to other conservation lands and its economic benefit to the community. But under recent changes to the scoring criteria, projects with outstanding public access can receive more points.

LMF staff have declined to release copies of funding applications, saying they are considered confidential (and therefore shielded from public disclosure) until contract awards are made.

But in the Big Six application for Forest Legacy funding, The Trust for Public Land argued that the unprotected property “is at threat of conservation to non-forestry uses that could imperil the recreational, ecological and timber resources.” In addition to Fortin’s initial interest in harvesting the sugarbush for maple wood, the property’s proximity to the metropolitan area of Quebec City – located just 90 minutes away – means it is at risk of development.

“The owners of Big Six would prefer to maintain the property as a single large working forest tract, but must also find revenue to satisfy investors and make mortgage payments,” the application reads. “Absent an easement, the landowners have shown interest in camp lot development as one possible source of revenue.”

In a 2013 letter submitted as part of the Forest Legacy application, Quebec City real estate broker Louis Hudon wrote that “camp lots in the township of Big Six would be very marketable to Canadian citizens.”

“The location of Big Six Township makes it especially intriguing to Canadian citizens,” Hudon wrote. “With a simple crossing of the border in St. Aurelie, a short drive from Quebec City, Canadian are at the doorstep of a vast forestland full of recreational opportunities.”

But Bill Jarvis, the forest land manager in the Jackman area, isn’t buying any of those arguments, and he doesn’t believe the state should help purchase a conservation easement on the land.

Jarvis, who manages land that includes 10 maple sugaring operations, estimates that Fortin could make as much in six to eight years from leasing those 340,000 sap taps as he would from harvesting the sugarbush at current stumpage prices. But Jarvis said harvesting those maple groves would be a nightmare because crews would have to remove the endless miles of sap collection piping and tubes, not to mention deal with generations of nails, pins or other metal objects in the trees.

Instead, Jarvis believes the sugar maple operations “are being used as a pawn in an extortion attempt” to get public funding for conservation easements.

Jarvis also dismisses suggestions that Big Six is vulnerable to development. The U.S./Canada border crossing at St. Aurelie, Quebec, is only open Monday through Friday during most weeks and is closed on holidays, meaning many Canadians wouldn’t be able to easily access their camps on weekends.

“Here I am in the Jackman area, on paved roads with (border) ports that are open all of the time, and I don’t see any pressure for camps here,” Jarvis said.

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

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