A conservation group has purchased more than 2,700 acres in central Maine and donated the land to the state as part of the first project to benefit from the thaw in funding for the Land for Maine’s Future program.

Plum Creek Timber Co. agreed to sell five separate tracts totaling 2,730 acres in Embden, Burnham, Detroit and Ripley to The Trust for Public Land. The trust, in turn, transferred the land Monday to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which plans to add the land to the state’s wildlife management area system.

The $1.9 million Central Maine Sportsman’s Access project was financed with $500,000 from the Land for Maine’s Future program and with $1.4 million from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Restoration Program. The funds are generated from the sale of voter-approved bonds.

The Central Maine Sportsman’s Access project is the first to receive a share of $2.2 million in available cash that had been frozen for months as Gov. Paul LePage sought to use the program as a bargaining chip with legislators.

LePage agreed in October to release the $2.2 million left over from previous bond sales in order to allow a handful of projects already approved by the LMF board to move forward. Then last week, LePage surprised many by announcing plans to sell $5 million in voter-approved bonds for LMF next year as well as $6.5 million in expired bonds if they are reauthorized by the Legislature early next year.

LePage had been sitting on the bonds as he pressured lawmakers – unsuccessfully, to date – to allow more timber harvesting on state-owned lands to help pay for a home heating assistance program for low-income and elderly Mainers.

But LePage’s political tactics have contributed to a backlog of LMF projects and forced some land trusts to either seek extensions on purchase agreements or find alternate sources of money. The uncertainty over the bonds affected more than 30 projects that were approved for funding by the LMF board.

The architects of the Central Maine Sportsman’s Access project said the land includes roughly 1,000 acres of “deer yard” habitat – areas used by deer for shelter and safety during the winter – as well as 1,000 acres of wetlands used by moose and waterfowl.

“Hunting, fishing and wildlife-watching are a central part Maine’s culture and economy,” Wolfe Tone, Maine state director of The Trust for Public Land, said in a statement. “We are proud to work side-by-side with sportsmen, guides, the state, and federal partners to protect these great traditions.”

The Central Maine Sportsman’s Access project was not expected to be the first through the gate for the funding but completed all of the necessary paperwork and final reviews before other projects. The central Maine project will receive $500,000 out of the $1.6 million available for land conservation and recreation, with the remaining $600,000 going toward the preservation of farms or working waterfronts.

Supporters of the Central Maine Sportsman’s Access project cheered its completion.

“The great thing about these properties is they are right in everybody’s backyard,” Clint Southard, a Palmyra resident who runs Full Circle Guide Service, said Monday evening. “They are right in central Maine and you don’t have to travel far to get there, so I think they are a real jewel for sportsmen.”

Projects that preserve deer wintering areas will likely benefit when LePage sells the $5 million in bonds next year as well. That’s because the bond measure – approved by 58 percent of Maine voters in June 2012 – instructs the state to give “preferential consideration during scoring” to projects that protect deer wintering areas. Other projects, such as the controversial Howard Hill project in Augusta strongly opposed by LePage, are also working to finalize their paperwork to receive funding.

The Trust for Public Land said that game-tagging data show that central Maine has some of the highest numbers of hunters statewide, but the region has the lowest amount of conservation land with guaranteed public access. To receive LMF funding, all projects must provide public access to the land for recreation.

“Generations of Maine sportsmen, through the purchase of ammunition and firearms, have paid into the Wildlife Restoration Program,” David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said in a statement. “Putting this money towards important habitat protection and public access is exactly what needs to happen to ensure the next generation of sportsmen have places to hunt and fish.”

Plum Creek, which is one of Maine’s largest private landowners, with more than 900,000 acres, is also involved in another LMF project moving through the final stages. The Cold Stream Forest Project involves more than 8,000 acres in Somerset County.


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