Deep in the reaches of the Big Six Forest, a 23,600-acre wilderness spread along the northern border separating Somerset County and Canada, lies one of Maine’s most productive maple sugar bushes.

Many of the maple trees in Big Six’s 4,000-acre grove are well over 100 years old and have been tapped for generations by eight of Maine’s largest maple syrup producers. Among them, Big Six’s producers churn out between 25 and 30 percent of Maine’s maple syrup. All of the Big Six operations are run by Canadian producers who, in many cases, handed down knowledge and expertise of the syruping industry through two or more generations.

But now the future of Big Six’s maple syrup producers — and with them the industry at large — hangs in the balance as a years-long attempt to save the forest runs up against its private landowner’s 2018 deadline to either secure roughly $5.7 million in conservation easement funds to help pay down his mortgage, or start cutting Big Six’s maples.

Losing that maple production could have a damaging effect on the state’s growing maple industry, said Kathryn Hopkins, of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, who added that neither she nor the extension has a position on the Big Six conservation deal. Maine relies on Big Six producers to maintain its position as the third-largest producer in the country.

“I think the thing that Mainers need to remember is that (the industry) is growing every year and gaining in popularity with the public every year,” Hopkins said. “If you want that to continue — and down the line I mean there are suggestions, there have always been suggestions, that Maine should have a big packer and distributor like New Hampshire and Vermont do — well, they can never aspire to that level if they don’t keep their production going. You can’t continue your growth if you cut out 25 percent of your output.”

Like most of Maine’s large-scale maple syrup operations, Big Six’s syrup producers lease, rather than own, their approximately 330,000 taps. While the forest land has changed hands multiple times over the decades, it was purchased most recently by Paul Fortin, a Madison businessman, who bought the tract in 2012 with the intention of cutting the maples and shipping them to a chip factory he owns 10 miles up the road in Saint-Zacharie, Quebec.

When officials in Gov. Paul LePage’s administration and members of the state’s Maple Task Force Study Group learned of Fortin’s plans for the sugar bush, they intervened, asking if he would consider other options. Fortin and the state agreed on a conservation easement and he proposed bringing in the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation group that spearheads preservation projects around the country, to facilitate the project.

If funded, the easement agreement would prohibit in perpetuity any subdivision or development of the forest. It would require that commercial foresters work sustainably under state supervision and guarantee recreational access to the land. Unique to this project, the easement would preserve the 4,000-acre sugar bush.

“There is a minor amount of management that will be allowed, but it’s only to produce maple sap and not to produce saw logs, biomass or pulp,” said J.T. Horn, of the Trust for Public Land. “Those 4,000 acres are treated differently.”

SWEETHEART DEAL?

Critics of the deal say it amounts to a taxpayer-funded payoff of a private landowner. Big Six is relatively inaccessible to Maine’s recreationalists, they point out, and there is skepticism about the extent of any external development threat to the property, a condition for some of the proposed funding.

After a failed first attempt, the Trust for Public Land secured $3.8 million toward the easement through the federal Forest Legacy program. In the group’s revised application, it focused on development interest from the Canadian side of the border, noting that Big Six is only 1.5 hours from Quebec City, a major urban center. They said Fortin already had received requests from Canadians looking to develop Big Six land for recreational camps. In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service agreed the threat was sufficient and awarded the funds.

The Trust for Public Land now plans to apply to the Land for Maine’s Future, a state-funded preservation board, for additional funding to help fill the gap. From 1987 to 2016, the board helped to preserve 591,138 acres of forest and recreation land across the state, according to state records. The majority of that acreage, 316,486, was protected through easement deals; while the remaining acreage was purchased through a combination of federal, state and private funding.

Fortin and the Trust for Public Land worked with Land for Maine’s Future in the past on a 2012 deal to sell land around Seboeis Lake to the state. In that case, Fortin said, the state also approached him in looking to complete its work on the 21,369-acre Seboeis Lake Public Reserve. The Trust for Public Land cobbled together $2.7 million in funding for more than 5,700 acres, with the Land for Maine’s Future contributing $483,136 to the total, according to state records. Those funds amounted to about 8.6 percent of the more than $5.6 million Land for Maine’s Future spent across 38 conservation projects from January 2011 to December 2012.

Horn said he is not yet sure how much the partners will apply for in the Big Six case, but they are waiting for the next grant round to open, likely in June. He thinks for projects of similar size and scope, it would not be unusual to request around $1 million.

“We’re waiting to see how much money is available, what the total pool is, what the competition is, etc., before we decide what to ask for,” Horn said. “We haven’t decided if that’s reasonable yet or not.”

In the meantime, “donations are welcome,” he added.

Other critics of the Big Six easement effort say LePage’s support for the project contrasts starkly with his past criticism of Land for Maine’s Future deals as vehicles for corruption. They point to multiple donations Fortin has made to pro-LePage campaign funds as proof of a possible quid pro quo.

LePage’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but he has previously characterized his backing for the project as part and parcel of his support of working forests.

In a statement to the Bangor Daily News in March, LePage spokesperson Adrienne Bennett said the governor “remained consistent in his support for projects that promote working waterfronts and forests, which create good-paying jobs for Mainers.”

Fortin said he would take his hits on the political contribution critiques. State campaign finance records show he donated $6,000 to LePage’s 2014 re-election campaign and in 2016 donated $20,000 to a pro-LePage political action committee. In addition to his support for LePage, records show Fortin donated to state Republican candidates Edward Goff and Rodney Whittemore. He said he has also contributed to U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District.

In a March column, Bangor Daily News contributor Lance Dutson wrote that the timing of Fortin’s 2016 donation was troubling.

“Fortin’s donations to LePage’s campaign are not anything out of the ordinary. But writing a check for $20,000 to a PAC when the governor isn’t even up for re-election is a pretty major development,” Dutson wrote. “The implications of such a potential quid pro quo are substantial. The very definition of corruption is the exchange of campaign donations for policy favoritism,” he continued.

Horn said his group was unaware of Fortin’s political contributions when they came to the project. He argued that for his organization, the Big Six easement made sense on the merits.

“We saw this as a chance to conserve more than 20,000 acres, and if this is really a quarter of the maple syrup production in Maine, it seemed like a pretty good opportunity to make a big impact,” Horn said.

Other proponents of the easement say LePage came out in support of the project prior to Fortin’s 2014 contribution. They argue the recent focus on the possible politics around the deal has distracted from the larger question of how the state will work with private landowners to preserve and grow Maine’s maple syrup industry.

INDUSTRY IN BALANCE

For Maine’s largest maple syrup producers, negotiating with private landowners is simply a fact of life. Most large producers rent, rather than own, their taps and the land they work on. In a 2013 survey of Maine’s maple syrup operations, University of Maine professor of economics Todd Gabe found that 12 percent of Maine’s syrup producers accounted for 86 percent of Maine’s maple taps. Among those large-scale producers, worries about tap lease costs ranked third on their list of priorities after energy costs and spring weather conditions. For smaller outfits, lease costs ranked 16th.

Russell Black, a state representative from Wilton and former head of the state maple task force, supports the Big Six easement and frames the effort and others like it as an increasingly pressing matter of state policy.

“A lot of these large tracts that we’ve got, the same thing is going to happen to them. They’re going to be developed,” Black said. “You pay off the landowner to continue to have public access. If we pay (Fortin) off for part of his rights to that property, he’s going to have to allow us to use that property forever and ever, and it’s always going to have to stay in forest management.”

Black said he and his colleagues studied ways to expand what they believe could be a massive industry for the state. In 2011, the task force found that Maine had an estimated 38.5 million sugar and red maple trees large enough to support syrup production with the potential of up to 41.3 million taps. Those taps could produce up to 10.3 million gallons of syrup annually, the task force estimated.

Last year, Maine’s maple syrup industry was the third-largest in the country, after those in Vermont and New York, with 1.86 million maple taps producing 675,000 gallons of syrup, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Vermont, which dominates the maple syrup industry, had more than 4.9 million taps producing nearly 2 million gallons of syrup.

By 2013, Vermont had tapped about 27 percent of its trees, a Cornell University study found. That year, Vermont’s maple syrup operations supported 2,735 to 3,169 full-time equivalent jobs, according to a University of Vermont study. In 2016, Maine had reached about 4.5 percent of its total potential taps.

There has been little comprehensive research on the economic impact of Maine’s maple syrup industry, but it has been growing steadily for the past two decades. Between 1997 and 2012, the number of maple syrup taps in Maine more than doubled, while the number of syrup operations grew by nearly 57 percent, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

In another 2013 study, Gabe, of the University of Maine, found the industry directly contributed $27.7 million in output, 567 full-time jobs and $17.3 million in labor income to Maine’s economy. Incorporating multiplier effects such as money spent by maple farms and the other businesses, such as food retailers, that make up the maple industry, Gabe estimated the industry contributed $48.7 million in output, 805 full- and part-time jobs and $25.1 million in labor income.

In its 2011 recommendations to the state, the Maine Maple Task Force Study Group noted the vast untapped potential in Maine’s maple groves and urged state lawmakers to invest resources in the industry. As its first order of business, the task force called for the formation of a permanent commission dedicated to studying and promoting growth in the industry, likening it to similar groups formed around Maine’s potato, blueberry and lobster industries.

But Black said LePage opposed the commission, seeing no purpose to it, and the effort eventually stalled. After four years, the task force disbanded, having made little progress on its work to create a distinct Maine maple syrup brand.

“The ground work is all laid to move ahead with marketing and promotion, but we were not able to at this time,” Black said.

In the absence of state leadership, members of the Maine Maple Syrup Producers Association, an independent organization of maple syrup operations, has taken on the task of promoting the industry and improving branding for Maine syrup, said Hopkins, of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

The group applied for and received a crop specialty grant three years ago, Hopkins said, and had used the money to update its website and fund development of a unique Maine maple syrup logo. The group now travels to The Big E — the Eastern States Exposition — billed as the largest agricultural event on the East Coast, and represents Maine’s maple syrup alongside the state’s other well-known commodities.

Even without state funding for marketing, however, Maine’s maple industry has seen attendance at its signature Maine Maple Sunday event explode since it began in 1983. When he started participating in Maine Maple Sunday in 1999, maple syrup producer Lyle Merrifield said about 400 people showed up at his Gorham farm. This year, that number ballooned to nearly 8,000 over the course of the weekend.

One of the consequences of that growth has been that smaller southern syrup producers have come to rely on their larger northern counterparts to keep up not only with Maple Sunday but year-round demand.

“You go through so much syrup that one weekend, you have to continue to buy syrup,” Merrifield said. “Especially if you have an off year down here, because the lower part of the state is only producing about 5 percent of the total syrup crop. The Golden Road area and Big Six are producing the other 95 percent.”

STRICTLY FINANCIAL

Much of Big Six’s maple syrup is sent to wholesalers in Vermont and New Hampshire and sold as products of the U.S. — not Maine — but some does make its way to other Maine operations. Maine Maple Products, in Madison, is the largest maple syrup bottler and distributor in the state, and it relies on Big Six syrup. Black, of the task force, said he too had turned to Big Six producers to supplement him on Maine Maple Sunday.

Black believes that further investment in Maine’s maple syrup infrastructure could keep more Big Six syrup in the state. Fortin said his sons are considering opening a bottling plant in Maine that could partner with Big Six operations.

For his part, Fortin said the deal is strictly a matter of finances. He has a $6.3 million mortgage to pay down and is running out of ways to do so. Typically, Fortin said, he would have processed the timber by now, sold it to his contract clients and moved on to another property.

But with so much of his company’s capital wrapped up in Big Six, he has been unable to purchase any new land since 2012.

In the interim, Fortin has agreed to a new 20-year contract with Big Six’s producers, that he says is contingent upon his getting the easement. Without it, he said, he could not cover his short-term costs, even with the higher tap prices (nearly twice what they were) he negotiated.

Fortin said he still hopes to avoid cutting the Big Six sugar bush. He has come to know and respect Big Six’s maple syrup producers and learned more than he ever thought he would about how important they are to the state’s syrup industry.

“These guys up there are good guys,” Fortin said. “They’re all good guys and they don’t want to be mistreated, and I don’t want to mistreat them.”

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

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Twitter: @KateRMcCormick