AUGUSTA — The Land for Maine’s Future board plans to make an additional $4.3 million available for conservation projects later this year but will likely use a new process and scoring criteria to review the funding requests.
The money comes from unexpended portions of two bond packages – approved by voters in 2009 and 2011 – and will fund the first new round of project proposals through the program in nearly three years. The additional money also suggests a further easing of recent political tensions between Gov. Paul LePage and lawmakers over the program, although conservation groups will be watching closely how the $4.3 million is allocated.
Before soliciting project proposals, however, the LMF board plans to tweak the system for reviewing applications seeking state matching dollars to complete conservation projects. During an LMF board meeting on Tuesday, members discussed proposed changes to the scoring system that is used to review and compare project proposals as well as the vetting process prior to award announcements.
Board Chairman Patrick Keliher, who is commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said he expects the board to discuss the new process and scoring system in May. At that time, the board will then decide whether to issue a new “request for proposals” for conservation projects or whether to delay the next round.
There are currently 15 projects that were approved for funding in July 2014 – the last funding round – but have yet to be finalized. Many of those projects and others were delayed when LePage refused to sell voter-approved bonds during his fight with the Legislature over Land for Main’s Future and timber harvesting. However, the governor has since released those bonds.
In a letter sent Monday to Sarah Demers, staff director of the LMF program, the directors of Maine Coast Heritage Trust and The Nature Conservancy urged the board to “focus on closing the remaining 15 projects … before diverting staff time and energy to the time-intensive task of overseeing a new round of LMF grants.”
While some of those delays are attributable to the conservation groups, the LMF program is also short one staff person and LePage has proposed eliminating that position in his current two-year budget. Jeff Romano with Maine Coast Heritage Trust said he believed four of his organization’s projects were ready go to.
Responding to those concerns aired again on Tuesday, Keliher said he believes LMF staff members are positioned to finalize many of those 15 projects in the coming months.
“This is going to be a mini-round,” said Keliher. “I would completely agree with your point if we were talking about $12 (million) or $20 million going out the door, but at $4 million it feels more doable to us.”
Romano said afterward that he was hopeful that the staff could address the 15 projects and also that he was pleased that the board was accepting public comments on the changes to the scoring and review process.
There is already a buzz surrounding one potential project that would place a conservation easement on 23,600 acres of forestland in Somerset County.
The $5.7 million Big Six Forest Project has strong support in the conservation community and has already successfully competed for a share of federal Forest Legacy funding. But some have also questioned whether the LePage administration is supporting the project – after opposing others and strongly criticizing LMF at times – because the landowner donated to his political action committee.
Started in 1987, Land for Maine’s Future has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres of working forests, farmland and commercial working waterfronts through land sales or conservation easements. Project applicants must match every dollar from the state with private or federal money, and all conservation land projects also must provide access to the public for recreational activities such as hiking, hunting or fishing.