PHILLIPS — Marking the completion of a five-year quest for a conservation easement protecting forests in the western Maine High Peaks Region from development, about 120 supporters gathered on Saturday at the Phillips Area Community Center to celebrate their success.

The easement campaign, known as the Orbeton Stream Project, was completed in December.

Wolfe Tone, director of the Maine office of The Trust for Public Lands, told the audience that the level of commitment from the many organizations and volunteers made the day of celebration possible. He cautioned that they should never consider their work completed. Many other challenges lay ahead, he told them, and conservation of land for public access would be their legacy for future generations.

“This work matters,” Tone told the audience. “We’re here today because of you.”

Funding for preservation of the timber acreage will require the owner, Linkletter Timberlands, to keep the land as working forest and out of development. The public will have access to ITS 84/89 snowmobile trails, the Moose Loop ATV system, the Fly Rod Crosby Trail and the new Appalachian Trail Berry Pickers side trail, and the Linkletter family’s company will receive support for its working forest operations.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Arthur “Butch” Blazer suggested the conservation easement was a model of excellence that other states could use to preserve their own land. As a former New Mexico state forester and member of the Mescalero Apache tribe, Blazer said he was impressed by the quality of the Orbeton Stream Project.

“Your track record in Maine is quite outstanding,” he said. “You do things with the money here that I’m hoping many, many more people across the country will figure how to do.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also in attendance, said the money to fund the transaction came through a complex partnership of private and public funding sources.

“Nearly $1.3 million of the $1.6 million easement purchase came from the federal Forest Legacy Program,” Collins said.

Conservation, especially in Maine, has been a passion in her political career, she said. She has championed the Forest Legacy Program, which is financed through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That money comes from offshore oil and gas drilling revenue and will be administered by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Collins said she supports the fund’s effort because it protects jobs and provides recreation and preserves habitat.

She expressed concern that as much as half of the oil and gas drilling revenue had been redirected to other government programs not meant for conservation projects like Orbeton Stream, but she said she would continue her work to protect the federal effort.

“We should not be balancing our nation’s books today by shortchanging our future,” she said. “I’m among a bi-partisan group of senators who are supporting a bill to permanently reauthorize this landmark program.”

The western Maine foothills and mountains, now branded as the High Peaks region, offer 435 miles of all-terrain vehicle trails, more than 30 percent of the statewide network. Mountain bikers have 40 miles of trails, and Maine Huts and Trails offers 65 miles of public access.

Lloyd Griscom, a director of both the High Peaks Alliance and the Maine Appalachian Trail Land Trust, has been a key figure in the five-year project development. He suggested that the major factor in conserving the Orbeton Stream area was the collaboration among the various groups. Even though they all might seem to have divergent interests — forest products versus ecology, motorized trail use versus nonmotorized, private ownership versus state ownership — they all worked together, he said.

“Conservation doesn’t have to be about getting what you want,” he noted. “It can, and indeed is, about getting what’s best for everybody.”

Some environmentalists might have been happier without ATVs and loggers, and some ATV and snowmobile riders might have been happier with private ownership of the land, Griscom said.

“Despite their differences, every single outdoor club, group or organization in the area supported the project and is excited to get out on the land with the rest of us,” he said.

Celebrating those collaborative efforts, the High Peaks Alliance offered visitors a guided snowshoe walk on the Fly Rod Crosby Trail, and the North Franklin Snowmobile Club held a snowmobile ride-in to the Community Center.


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