We all love Maine for its splendor of natural wealth: its ocean shores, mountains, great rivers, forests, and fields of blueberries and corn that define our farm communities. We treasure our freedom to fish on great ponds, to hike up mountains where generations have viewed this state’s majesty, and to hunt on unposted land. We should know that, as more “no trespassing” signs appear along our roads, the land preserved by conservation nonprofits and the state secures our heritage of open space.

Gov. Paul LePage has said he wants to remove the real estate tax exemption allowed for properties owned by nonprofit land trusts. Why are conservation land trusts, along with other nonprofits such as private colleges, given the right to apply for local real estate exemptions? What do land trusts provide to deserve it? A review of conservation land in Somerset County may be instructive.

Somerset County is fortunate to contain some of Maine’s most spectacular scenery. The North Woods of Somerset County features magnificent views of mountains and lakes as seen from U.S. Route 201 and then reaching eastward to the shores of Moosehead Lake. Conservation organizations and Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands have protected much of the vast forest resources of the North Woods, assuring Maine will forever be the Pine Tree State and a destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Some of this land is protected by conservation easements and remains on the tax rolls and/or subject to Maine’s Forest Excise Tax.

In the southern half of the county, Somerset Woods Trustees has been protecting parcels since 1927. Our group is governed by local residents answerable to the interests and needs of their constituents. Of the 1,800 acres that we safeguard, 800 acres of private land, protected by conservation easements, remain on the tax rolls. The remaining 1,000 acres are open and maintained, free to the public. The 1,000 acres are spread across nine towns: Skowhegan, Madison, Embden, Solon, Concord, Norridgewock, Starks, Cornville and Canaan. Still, there are 2,620,800 acres in Somerset County; 1,000 acres occupies only 0.04 percent of the county.

Along with our group, there are 79 other land organizations in Maine. Why not rely on the state alone to safeguard public land? Maine has protected only 6.5 percent of its total area, the lowest percentage among Eastern states. By comparison, New Hampshire has protected 17 percent and Massachusetts 10 percent. Land trusts also thrive and own additional land in those states, working in partnership with towns, cities and the state to protect farmland, forests, water access and places of spectacular, unique beauty.

Properties such as Coburn Woods cost the local taxpayers nothing, but all are welcome to hike, ski, hunt or ride on 4 miles of mountain bike trails. Coburn Woods will become a destination for many bikers who may also stop to shop downtown or eat at local restaurants.

Somerset Woods Trustees also provided the land along the Kennebec Gorge for the Debe Park Trail in Skowhegan and extended that trail into Philbrick Woods. In Madison, we maintain water access for small boats, and in Skowhegan we provide the land to the state for Cleaver Landing boat ramp.

Our group has given a long-term lease to the Maine Appalachian Trail Club to build their training center in Skowhegan and provided land for other uses, such as a children’s playground in Skowhegan. We assist land owners in protecting their family forests for future generations by holding conservation easements. We protect properties where endangered or threatened plants thrive. And we are developing a 20-acre field of native wildflowers and grasses to attract butterflies, bees and other insects vital to pollination of not only our backyard plants, but to our commercial orchards and blueberry fields.

A few years ago concrete barriers appeared without prior notice at the picnic and historic site on the Kennebec River in Skowhegan, blocking the site from visitors. The land had been leased by Somerset Woods Trustees for the state to use as a public picnic area. The Trustees quickly negotiated with the state to remove the barriers, and re-opened the site with the assistance of generous local donors. Last year we installed a kiosk to display brochures and maps of local trails and events.

Maine residents have voted time after time to support protection of public lands. The governor’s proposal appears to be contrary to the voters’ support of conservation and the services that land trusts provide to our communities and tourism industry. We encourage the Legislature to consider the many benefits to our state that land trusts provide, and to vote down any proposal that removes the tax exemptions available to them.

Jack Gibson is president of Somerset Woods Trustees. Nancy Williams is the group’s executive director.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.