Maine lawmakers included $40 million for land conservation in the state’s newest budget, one of the biggest cash infusions to the Land for Maine’s Future program since it started more than 30 years ago.

The investment comes as record numbers of people visit Maine’s outdoors and pressure builds over development and preserving sensitive areas. The budget, which passed with overwhelming support in the Legislature, includes the largest appropriation ever for the program and the biggest single deposit since a voter-approved bond in 1999.

“The pandemic really illustrated that as people went outdoors to hike and hunt and fish and snowmobile, we saw record numbers of people going outdoors, and existing public outdoor spaces seeing a lot of people,” said Jeff Romano, public policy manager at the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a statewide land preservation group. “There is a real need for the state to acquire additional places for the public to enjoy outdoor activities.”

Land for Maine’s Future – administered by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry – provides state grants to preserve land for outdoor recreation, environmental protection, wildlife habitat and working farms, forest and coastal waterfront. Since it was started in 1987, the program has helped protect more than 600,000 acres of land with projects in each of Maine’s 16 counties, such as Mount Kineo, near Moosehead Lake, and the Bold Coast, near Cutler.

The program became a political target for former Gov. Paul LePage despite the program’s wide popularity among Maine voters. During his administration, LePage blocked spending from the program and allowed $6.5 million in bonds to expire before it could be used. The former governor wanted to allow more timber harvesting in preserved lands and complained the program allowed conservation groups to use taxpayer dollars for inflated land purchases.

The overwhelming bipartisan support for appropriating $40 million in the state budget, rather than relying on a voter-approved bond, shows how much buy-in the conservation program has across the state, said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. The appropriation for the program is less than half of 1 percent of the $8.7 billion state budget.

“This statement from the Legislature will hopefully put to bed the argument over whether (Land for Maine’s Future) is a good program or not,” Trahan said.

As of this March, the program had less than $4 million available to use. In the past decade, it spent an average of $1.8 million annually for land purchases, according to program reports. State funding for projects requires at least equal matching funds from other sources, but it typically attracts $2 or more for every dollar invested by the program.

Under the newest two-year budget, the program will receive $10 million a year for four years to fund land acquisition and conservation easements. Spreading the money over multiple years is important because it gives groups some certainty that funding will be available as they pursue lengthy and complicated land deals, said Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs.

“It is important to have it (be) multi-year – it takes time for these projects to come together, (and the program) usually only contributes 10 to 20 percent of the project,” Breen said. “Having that money available for four consecutive years sends a strong signal to the conservation community, the working waterfront, all kinds of groups that they should go forth and get projects underway.”

The budget also emphasized priorities for the program: community-focused recreation, deer wintering areas and projects to address climate change.

Land for Maine’s Future board members are expected to meet in the coming weeks to establish a schedule for making funds available, said program director Sarah Demers.

“Interest in Maine’s conservation community is high, and there are community and state projects on our radar,” Demers said in an email. “The … board and program staff are committed to making funds available to our applicant community as quickly as possible while maintaining the fair and equitable process that focuses on targeted conservation priorities.”

Trahan, of the Sportsman’s Alliance, said commercial logging cuts into important, old-growth forest habitat near Greenville, Rangeley and in Aroostook County that white-tailed deer need to survive harsh winters. A dropping deer population has cost communities tourism dollars from hunters and threatened local hunting traditions, but remaining wintering areas can be protected to shelter and rebuild deer herds and protect crucial habitat for other birds and animals, he said.

On the other side, community-focused projects envision protecting open space near population centers in southern and central Maine.

“These are places around where people live and work and raise their families, so people can access outdoor space near where they live,” said Romano, of the coastal Heritage Trust.

The trust, Nature Conservancy and Sportsman’s Alliance worked together for at least 10 years to secure more funding for Land for Maine’s Future, developing a coalition that unified interests and politicians across the spectrum, Romano said.

“We have been working in tandem for the last decade for the (program),” he said. “That partnership has been instrumental to build the political support across the aisle that was important for this investment.”

A new injection of cash for the program comes as federal money for conservation is becoming available. The Great American Outdoors Act, passed last year, included a permanent $900 million a year for grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, funded by federal oil and gas leases.

That means Maine projects could access the newly available state conservation money to match federal funding, said Melanie Sturm, forest and wildlife director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

“This is good timing – we can leverage federal funds and make $40 million go even further,” Sturm said. “There is heightened real estate interest in Maine, especially on the coast. Land for Maine’s Future can make sure we can protect the lands that are special because of recreation value, farmland or wildlife habitat. We can get ahead of the curve and protect places that are not appropriate for development.”


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