FREEPORT — Maine Coast Heritage Trust announced a campaign Wednesday to raise $25 million as the final piece of what’s billed as the “largest coastal conservation effort” in state history.

Officials at the Topsham-based organization said they hope the overall $125 million campaign will help protect public access to additional stretches of Maine’s coastline at a time of growing threats from development, sea level rise and other impacts from climate change. With roughly $100 million already raised, pledged or donated as land during the “silent” phase, the trust hopes to raise the remaining $25 million of the “Keep the Coast Maine” campaign by the end of 2019.

“A couple of years ago, it became obvious to us that Maine is really at a turning point in its history” regarding land use and access, said Tim Glidden, president of the organization. “And the threats we see coming really manifest themselves on the coast.”

Maine Coast Heritage Trust is a major player in the state’s conservation community, helping to protect more than 150,000 acres – from cobble beaches in Lubec to historic Malaga Island in the midcoast – over nearly a half-century. The trust reported nearly $29 million in contributions and grants in 2016, a significant figure that reflects both the early stages of the current campaign and the organization’s connections to deep-pocketed donors.

Maine Coast and other groups have clashed publicly with Gov. Paul LePage in recent years over issues such as taxes paid on conservation land and the economic value of land preservation. Yet advocates point toward the Maine public’s historic support of conservation initiatives – such as through voter-approved bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program – and the economic importance of nature-based tourism.

On Wednesday evening, several dozen donors, trust staff and conservation advocates gathered at L.L. Bean’s Flying Point Paddling Center in Freeport for the formal announcement of the public portion of the campaign. Audience members sipped wine and local craft beers as speakers talked about the value of public access to coastal areas for recreation and for Maine’s commercial fisheries.

“When I grew up, you could go on any island and you could camp out,” Judy Marsh, owner of Paul’s Marina in Brunswick, said in a four-minute video on the campaign. “All of a sudden it’s like the land is gated off and you can’t use it. So it’s an emotional thing with me.”

In addition to the $90 million raised or pledged so far, Glidden said the organization has received an offer from Robert and Anne Bass – summer residents of Mount Desert Island – to match up to $10 million in donations.

Tom Armstrong, chief merchandising officer for L.L. Bean, said afterward that the retailer makes annual gifts to land trusts in Maine and has supported numerous Maine Coast Heritage Trust projects, including the recent conservation of The Goslings islands off Brunswick.

“L.L. Bean and Maine Coast Heritage Trust share a common mission,” Armstrong said. “We love to provide the gear, equipment and training to get people outside, but they need places to explore. So without (land trusts), the model doesn’t really work.”

During an interview earlier Wednesday, Glidden laid out the major factors behind the ambitious campaign.

Glidden said that while many coastal properties are open to the public, the number of places with guaranteed public access to the waterline for commercial fishing and recreation has shrunk to roughly 1 percent of the coastline. That percentage could shrink further, he said, as more newcomers purchase coastal properties for private homes.

In addition, climate change is raising sea levels, threatening the marshes important both for habitat and as storm barriers, and disrupting native wildlife. And Glidden said Maine likely will become an even more popular destination for retirees as more baby boomers leave the workforce, increasing development pressure and further squeezing public access to the coast.

Those scenarios would have consequences for Maine’s working waterfronts, the tourism economy and the public’s ability to enjoy the coastline.

“We’re concerned that, over time, that trend will fundamentally alter the look and feel of what it’s like to live and work along the Maine coast,” said Glidden, who previously served as the longtime director of the Land for Maine’s Future conservation program.

According to a breakdown from Maine Coast Heritage Trust, roughly half of the $125 million will go toward conserving additional lands. Those include several high-profile projects now underway, including a $4.8 million effort to create a 120-acre public preserve on Clark Island in St. George and a $3.5 million project to purchase and open to the public for the first time Woodward Point, featuring 2 miles of waterfront on the New Meadows River in Brunswick.

But $42 million will be earmarked for “care and stewardship” of the land over the long term, which Glidden said means ensuring that the trust has the resources to maintain all of its properties and easement lands in perpetuity. Another $18 million will be geared toward educational programs, advocacy and other programs to connect people with the outdoors.

“This campaign will strengthen our ability to be good partners to all of the land trusts along the coast,” Glidden said.

Roughly 20 percent of Maine’s land base – or 4 million of the state’s 20 million acres – is conserved in some fashion, whether as a state park or as working forests protected under a conservation easement. Land trusts own an estimated 600,000 acres of that land.

The LePage administration often has accused land conservation organizations of “ripping off” taxpayers by taking land off the property tax rolls. LePage has pushed repeatedly – and unsuccessfully – for legislation to allow towns to collect taxes from nonprofit organizations such as land trusts, hospitals and colleges.

But Glidden and others point out that 94.5 percent of the conserved lands in Maine remain on the tax rolls, often as working forests. Land trusts own roughly 460,000 acres that is still taxable, although often at lower rates through enrollment in programs such as Tree Growth or Open Space programs, according to a recent report from land trusts.

Conservation groups also make “payments in lieu of taxes” to municipalities on about 100,000 acres. Maine Coast Heritage Trust paid $139,390 in property taxes or payments in lieu of taxes to host municipalities last year, according to data from the trust.

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

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