Apparently Gov. Paul LePage is unaware that taxes are paid on most conservation lands in Maine. His less-than-thoughtful legislation to “remove the property tax exemption for land held for conservation and public access purposes” should be quickly rejected by the Legislature.

This is right up there with his contention that our public lands only serve the rich. He couldn’t be more wrong on that one too. The rich have their own places to recreate. It’s the rest of us that depend on public and conservation lands for our outdoor fun. I’d love to get the governor up to the Kennebec Highlands some time, 6,000 acres of public land that includes Vienna Mountain, just 15 minutes from the governor’s residence in Augusta.

Perhaps he’d like to hike one of the wonderful trails with me. Or I could take him fishing on one of the remote ponds where I have stashed a canoe and where you can catch a bass on almost every cast. Or he could join me and my friend Ed Pineau, who has a camp on the edge of the Highlands, when we’re hunting there. Linda and I also hike and snowshoe there in the winter.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful place. And I’ve never seen a rich person up there! But boy, do I feel rich when I am enjoying that property which belongs to all of us.

Tom Abello of The Nature Conservancy and Jeff Romano of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust testified last Thursday against the governor’s bill. Most of the rest of the information in this column came from their testimony.

Maine actually has a lot less public land than other states. Just 6 percent of Maine land is publicly owned, compared to 17 percent in New Hampshire, 19 percen in New Jersey, and 25 percent in Florida. I once worked on a successful ballot initiative in Florida that appropriated money to add conservation lands in and around the Everglades. Some of that land was undeveloped house lots in subdivisions! In some of the western states, where I love to fish, more than half the land is publicly owned.

Maine Coast Heritage Trust owns more than 100 preserves from Casco Bay to Washington County. They pay property taxes on some of those lands, and PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) in municipalities where their properties are tax exempt. Those lands provide access for commercial fishermen, host school children and tourists, support local businesses, house community gardens, protect drinking water, and welcome all of us, including hunters and hikers.

The Nature Conservancy is the 12th largest landowner in the state, owning and managing about 300,000 acres. All their land provides great wildlife habitat and is open to the public for a wide variety of fun activities. I especially appreciate their work to restore rivers and streams and healthy fish populations in both inland and ocean waters.

Last year TNC paid more than $400,000 in real estate taxes in Maine, plus PILOTs of more than $20,000 on 20 properties. More than 250,000 acres of TNC land is enrolled in both the Tree Growth and the Open Space tax programs, and quite a bit of their land is available for commercial timber harvesting. Abello also pointed out in his testimony that the governor’s bill “does not recognize the value conservation land contributes to the economic vitality of Maine’s communities.”

I probably don’t have to remind you of the governor’s awful treatment of the Land for Maine’s Future program. Abello pointed out that, “Since its creation in 1987, the LMF program has helped conserve 590,000 acres. Of these, 91 percent contribute some form of taxes and the vast majority of the land has been invested in large-scale working forest conservation easements, which leave the property on the tax rolls and in private hands.

“Conservation lands protect the backbone of Maine’s natural resource based economy,” testified Abello, “by enhancing the forest products industry, working farms, fisheries and recreational opportunities in all corners of the state.” He noted that LMF has helped establish 52 water access sites, 37 working farms, and 20 commercial working waterfronts.

Abello also reported that recent public opinion polls found that 9 in 10 Mainers agree that “protecting land, water and wildlife in Maine is critical to keeping the state’s economy strong.” And 92 percent agree that “investments in conservation help support jobs in Maine’s tourism, fishing, and forestry industries and help support our economy.”

I guess they didn’t poll our governor.

But I have to wonder, why doesn’t Gov. LePage know all this? And why doesn’t he stand with us on the importance of conservation lands?

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.