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July 3, 2013

A couple canoes on the Saco River
Photo by Jerry and Marcy Monkman

A couple canoes on the Saco River in Hollis in 2007. This stretch of land is known as Indian Cellar because Native Americans once stored their food in caves along a deep gorge there. Land for Maine’s Future helped the town buy the property to protect it from development. Gov. LePage’s refusal in 2012 to issue voter-approved LMF bonds has held up similar projects.

Our View: Bond logjam hinders public access to land

From anglers to hunters, snowmobile riders to cross-country skiers, a lot of people spend a lot of time outdoors in Maine. So with 94 percent of Maine land in private hands, efforts to ensure public access are critical to the enjoyment of our state's natural features.

Mainers know this. That's why they have a history of backing proposals to sell bonds to fund Land for Maine's Future, which works with towns, nonprofit land trusts and the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to buy land for recreation, conservation and sustainable forestry. Since 1987, voters have approved more than $100 million in LMF bonds and conserved 550,000 acres of land.

These efforts, though, were dealt a setback last summer, when Gov. LePage declared he wouldn't release voter-approved bonds dating to 2009 -- including $12 million for land purchases -- until 2014.

He's since indicated that he'll act sooner. When he signed the hospital debt payment plan a couple of weeks ago, he said he'd make good on an earlier vow to pair the signing of the plan with the release of the bond funds.

But the governor has already jeopardized several land acquisitions and their accompanying matching funds. He has hurt efforts to protect assets whose draw for visitors make them crucial to the health of tourism, the state's leading industry. Land for Maine's Future now must play catch-up, at a time when public access to Maine's natural resources is more fragile than ever.

Efforts to acquire private property and open it to the public have been stymied. Though some of the land LMF acquires comes through easements, most is financed by bond sales. The yearlong delay in issuing bonds deprived the program of funds it needed to secure matching dollars for a variety of parcels around the state.

Maine prides itself on its landowners' longstanding embrace of open access, where recreational users can set foot on private property without having to ask permission or pay a fee.

But this tradition is at risk. A growing number of property owners surveyed about their opinions and experiences are considering barring access to their land because of problems like illegal dumping and road damage. To help address the access issues, the state just announced plans to ask outdoor recreationists similar questions and compare the results of the surveys.

Recreation in Maine is a huge industry. In 2006, for example, fishermen, hunters and wildlife watchers generated $1.1 billion in retail sales and supported nearly 26,000 jobs. If a private landowner decides to post his property, then these and other recreational users will have fewer places to enjoy their favorite activities. So while efforts to mend fences between landowners and the public are a wise idea, Maine still needs more public land in the mix in order to decrease the dependency on access to private land.

It's good that Gov. LePage is apparently ready to release the funds that Land for Maine's Future needs to move ahead. But if he'd had Maine's best interests in mind, he would have made the funds available in a timely fashion and not put an unnecessary block in the path of efforts to save what makes this state so special to so many people.





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