It’s fitting that the Cold Stream Forest project was completed so soon after a state report showed just how far Gov. Paul LePage’s claims on conservation depart from reality.
The purchase, finalized last week, is proof of how powerful a tool the purchase of public lands can be. Far from being a payout to the wealthy — as the governor has characterized such deals — the Cold Stream Forest project works on behalf of the people and economy of central Maine, protecting vulnerable areas that may otherwise deteriorate, and threaten the ability of everyday Mainers to make a living in a part of the state where that is already difficult.
The deal encompasses 8,159 acres at the convergance of the Kennebec and Dead rivers, near The Forks in Somerset County. It is the first purchase of its kind to specifically protect habitat, in this case for white-tailed deer and brook trout, following a change in the Land for Maine’s Future program in 2012.
Those two species are of tremendous importance to Maine, and to the economy of the region in particular.
Deer hunters spent $10 million in the Kennebec Valley tourism zone in 2013, as well as another $11 million in the Maine Lakes and Mountains region to the west and $12 million in the Maine Highlands to the east.
That money is key to the survival of sporting camps, hunting lodges and guide services, as well as to local stores and service providers. It keeps families in areas that are losing population, and kids in schools that are losing enrollment.
But the money follows the deer, and without wintering areas like the 3,000 acres near Cold Stream — where they hunker down to wait out the winter months — there would be a lot fewer deer.
Wintering habitat, which requires dense conifer stands, once comprised 15 percent of the total deer habitat in the state, the vast majority on private land.
But changes in land ownership and forestry practices erased a lot of the habitat, reducing it to 4 percent of the total, and Maine’s deer herd along with it. The Cold Stream purchase will make sure that never happens to 3,000 important acres.
The deal protects brook trout in the same way, conserving seven undeveloped ponds and five miles of Cold Stream for Maine’s No. 1 freshwater game fish.
Maine boasts 97 percent of wild lake and pond brook trout in the eastern U.S., and Cold Stream is regarded as the best brook trout habitat in the state.
As with deer, that helps prop up the local economy. In 2013, open-water fishermen and women spent $31 million in the Kennebec Valley zone, the highest of any of Maine’s tourism zones.
And this isn’t a playground for out-of-staters. When Maine residents decided to take a one-day fishing trip in 2013, they chose to go to the Kennebec Valley nearly 20 percent of the time.
All of that is important to remember when conservation comes under attack.
The Cold Stream purchase used $1.5 million from the Land for Maine’s Future program, the subject of years-long derision from Gov. LePage. It also received $5.5 million in federal Forest Legacy funding, for which the governor declined to apply in the most recent round despite its long history of success in Maine.
So despite recent victories, conservation efforts remain under threat, and without continued vigilance, we might miss out on the next Cold Stream Forest project, much to the detriment of rural Maine.