AUGUSTA — The Land for Maine’s Future board passed over a controversial proposal to protect 23,000 acres along the Maine-Quebec border when it allocated $3.2 million to 15 conservation projects statewide Thursday.

In the first competition for LMF funding in three years, board members selected projects ranging from a new boat landing in Lubec to a new, multi-use rail trail stretching for 32 miles in central Maine. But board members opted not to fund the largest and highest-profile project – a proposal to protect one of the nation’s largest maple “sugarbushes” – because of concerns about permanent, guaranteed road access to the remote Big Six Forest north of Jackman.

“It’s the biggest one at $1,250,000 and we will not have legal access to that property,” Fred Bucklin, an appraiser from Appleton, said before the board went into executive session to decide which projects to fund. “Imagine how this will play to the people looking at this from the outside? We paid $1,250,000 for a piece of property that we can’t even get to? It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me.”

LMF staff only released the names of projects that received preliminary allocations of nearly $3.2 million on Thursday but not a detailed breakdown. The state says LMF award amounts, as well as details of projects, remain confidential until all parties are notified in writing. The detailed list is expected to be released next week.

The Big Six project has received an unusual amount of scrutiny for an LMF project.

Located in a remote area of Maine’s commercial timberlands, Big Six features 17,000 acres of working forests, roughly 4,500 acres of maple sugarbush and wetlands. With 340,000 maple sap taps, Big Six is believed to have more taps than any other single property in the U.S. and accounted for 18.5 percent of Maine’s maple syrup production last year. But much of that syrup is collected by Quebec residents – some of whose families have tapped Big Six trees for generations – and then sold to syrup wholesalers in other states.

Landowner Paul Fortin of Madison, The Trust for Public Land and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry were seeking $1.25 million from LMF funds to help purchase a conservation easement on the land. The group has already received $3.8 million in federal Forest Legacy funds to purchase the $6 million easement, which would keep the land in Fortin’s hands but permanently extinguish development rights while allowing for continued maple sugar and timber operations.

The Big Six project had the backing of several national conservation organizations, numerous Maine-based outdoor recreation groups as well as the state’s maple syrup industry. But others have questioned the economics of the deal and suggested the project may have received support from Gov. Paul LePage – a vocal LMF critic – because Fortin contributed money to his campaign and political action committee.

There was no sign of LePage exerting influence over the board – all his appointees or Cabinet members – on Thursday. LMF board members said the 23,056-acre Big Six Forest lacked guaranteed public access from Maine and gave it lower marks for recreational opportunities as well as water access while judging the project for LMF funding. Board members also disagreed with project proponents that Big Six’s roughly 4,000-acre sugarbush represented an permanent “exceptional” asset worthy of extra points in the scoring process.

“I don’t see any permanent exceptionality to this piece of property,” said Chandler Woodcock, commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “I think you could easily grow a 5,000-acre sugar bush if you had the land or the time.”

Fortin purchased the property in 2012 and indicated he might have to cut down the sugarbush and/or subdivide parts of the property into camp lots to cover his mortgage. The group’s successful application for federal Forest Legacy funding argued the Big Six was prime real estate for Canadians seeking camp lots considering that the property is only 90 minutes via paved roads from Quebec City.

J.T. Horn, senior project manager for The Trust for Public Land, said he was disappointed the project did not score highly in the LMF competition. The North Maine Woods road system has provided access to more than 3 million acres of Maine’s commercial forestlands for 45 years, Horn said.

“We’ll have to reassess,” Horn said when asked about the prospect of not receiving money. “At $1.2 million, we were pretty confident we were going to be able to pull everything out. At some lesser amount, it starts to become more challenging. But we have to work that out with the landowner and with the state.”

Launched in 1987, Maine’s popular LMF program uses revenues from voter-approved bonds to conserve forests, farmlands and working waterfronts through either land sales or conservation easements. All project applicants must match LMF funding at least dollar-for-dollar, and lands conserved through the program must provide public access for recreational activities.

For many Mainers, the quickest and easiest way to access Big Six lands would be to cross into Canada near Jackman and then back into Maine at Saint Aurelie, Quebec, a trip that would require a U.S. passport. The LMF board, which uses a complicated scoring system to judge applications, gave the project three points out of a maximum of 15 for “accessibility.”

“I’d call it a ‘one’ because I can’t imagine it to be worse for Americans,” said member Harry Ricker, whose family runs a large apple orchard in Turner. “It’s awesome for Canadians, but I don’t think I was brought in to represent them.”

Sarah Demers, LMF’s staff director, said the program has completed projects within the North Maine Woods road network but, in every case, public access rights were purchased along with the property. But in the case of Big Six, “the landowner does not have public access rights to sell.”

“This property has access on private roads that have a long history of providing public access, but there is nothing in writing and I don’t think it would be realistic of us to ask the road owners to guarantee public access,” Demers told board members. “So this is in the precedent-setting range for LMF to acquire public land on a road that does not guarantee public access.”

The projects that received preliminary allocations on Thursday include:

n The 978-acre Bethel Community Forest providing trail connections between downtown Bethel and Sunday River ski area.

n A 32-mile trail project that will create multi-use trails from Oakland to Embden.

n A town-sponsored project in Yarmouth to conserve 24 acres along the Royal River.

n A new breakwater and boat launch in Lubec.

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

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