Be proud of land conservation

Regardless of the fact that Gov. Paul LePage withdrew his most recent controversial choice for a position on the Land for Maine’s Future board, it is clear that the governor does not support land conservation in Maine. That makes me sad.

But I have to admit, there was a time when I was skeptical that we needed to purchase private lands to keep them available to the public. Growing up, Dad and I could hunt anywhere in the Winthrop area that we wanted. There was no posted land and we were welcomed everywhere.

Well, that gradually changed, and as more and more “No Trespassing” signs went up, I changed my mind and began getting involved in conservation initiatives. Today, I am proud of our state for purchasing and protecting so many of our very best places, knowing that future generations will be able to enjoy these places as much as I have.

If you have not gotten up to the 6,000 acres of public land in the Kennebec Highlands, just 20 minutes from the Capitol, I encourage you to do so. From its beautiful forests to its stunning views and small ponds and brooks, this is a very special place.

But here’s the thing. I have also enjoyed public lands — including national parks, monuments and forests — all over the country, and learned over time that Maine actually has a lot less public land than other states. Just 4 percent of Maine land is publicly owned, compared to 17 percent in New Hampshire, 19 percent in New Jersey, and 25 percent in Florida.

I once worked with my sister Edie 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.

Thankfully, Maine people strongly support our state’s conservation effort, led by many groups, including The Nature Conservancy, Maine Audubon, the Natural Resource Council, Sportsman’s Alliance, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and dozens of others from the state to the local level.

I was particularly pleased and proud of my friends at Kennebec Land Trust when they successfully completed the purchase of the Howard Hill property in Augusta and transferred ownership to the city. That was successful despite the angry opposition of the governor and the shameful decision by the new LMF board to cut in half the program’s contribution to that important project. You don’t get many chances like that to conserve forests in the middle of cities.

In 1987, Maine voters approved a $35 million bond that led to the creation of the Land for Maine’s Future program. Since then, Maine voters have consistently approved land bonds, in 1999, 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2012.

LMF has contributed to the purchase of more than 490,000 acres of land or easements from willing sellers. These lands include more than 1,200 miles of shorefront and 315,000 acres of working forestland, and habitat important for wildlife for breeding, wintering, and migration. LMF-protected lands also include entire islands as well as more than 30 working farms.

Yet the governor continues his effort to shut the program down, including in his new budget which proposes to cut one of the four LMF staff positions. Last year, calling the program corrupt and insisting it only serves the rich, the governor ordered Jonathan LaBonte, his director of the Office of Policy and Management, to investigate the program.

LaBonte delivered his highly-anticipated report to the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee and it was very positive. At the same time, the Land for Maine’s Future Coalition presented its own comprehensive report on LMF. David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, participated in the presentation of that report — titled, “Stronger Than Ever” — and made a very strong statement.

“The board, program, and Legislature has done an amazing job,” said Trahan. “Both reports noted that the LMF program served the average Maine working person — the clammer, the hunter — all of us, rich, poor, and people in the middle, should enjoy these resources. Statements that they only serve the rich need to stop,” he said, taking direct aim at Gov. LePage.

Among the valuable information in the “Stronger Than Ever” report was the fact that for every $1 spent by LMF, $11 worth of benefits and economic activity is generated. LaBonte’s report demonstrated the amazing return we are getting for our LMF dollars. He cited 2013 purchases with a value of $18 million and an investment of $5.6 million in LMF funds (one-third of the value), and 2015 purchases with a value of $11.8 million and an investment of $3.25 million in LMF funds (one-quarter of the value).

Pretty good return on our money, wouldn’t you say?

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