Land trusts should be celebrated

Gov. Paul LePage’s misguided and inaccurate attacks on Maine’s land trusts may be an attempt to divert us from how much he has hurt local government and caused significant increases in our property taxes.

The governor has tried for years to eliminate revenue sharing, which gives towns a small portion of the state’s income tax revenue. He hasn’t succeeded, but he has managed to reduce payments to municipalities by $602 million.

I probably don’t have to tell you how much he has punished property taxpayers with his cuts to state funding for our schools. With the Legislature’s support, he’s cut state school funding by $500 million. And despite the fact that we voted many years ago, in a statewide referendum, to have the state fund 55 percent of our school costs, the state has been short of that goal to the tune of $1.3 billion.

Look in the mirror, Gov. LePage, and you will see the real problem. It is, most definitely, not our land trusts and wonderful conservation lands.

Sen. Tom Saviello got it right when he told Press Herald reporter Kevin Miller that land trusts “are paying taxes, they are generating income and, in most cases, they are open to the public for (recreational) use.” Many of these conservation lands are important contributors to our economy, enjoyed by both residents and tourists.

The governor continues to ignore the fact that $11.8 billion of the $18.3 billion of tax-exempt property is owned by the state, federal government, municipalities, or quasi-municipal agencies like water districts. Perhaps the governor would like to allow towns to tax all that property, including his home — the Blaine House.

Most of the remaining tax-exempt property consists of hospitals, churches, American Legions, charities, and yes, land trusts. But nearly all land trusts pay something in local taxes. The governor got that wrong too.

I’ve written before of how lucky we are to have the Kennebec Land Trust in our area. My wife Linda and I have enjoyed their lands and trails for many years. And this year, we decided to donate our woodlot to the land trust. We especially like the trust’s commitment to teaching kids about conservation — that will be a focus for our woodlot.

Our woodlot is an amazing place, with outstanding wildlife habitat including a bog, beaver flowage, softwood and hardwood groves, lots of cedar, and more. Every kind of wildlife critter lives there. And the nearby stream, offering five miles of undeveloped shoreline, is a very popular place for canoeing and kayaking.

The first section of my new book, “A Lifetime of Hunting and Fishing,” published last August by North Country Press, is titled “Walking My Woodlot.” I take the reader through my woodlot telling stories of wonderful things that have happened there while I was hunting.

For example, once I was sitting on the ground with my back up against a tree and an ermine started sprinting back and forth in front of me. It got to within about 10 yards, turned my way, and ran right up my leg, stopping on my chest. At that point it decided I wasn’t a tree and jumped off. Amazing!

Our plan is to create a trail with signs to teach the kids about the various habitats and critters that live on the woodlot. I’m also adding stories to “Walking My Woodlot,” and they will be available in a free booklet for the kids.

Years ago I dedicated my woodlot to my dad, Ezra Smith, and it sports a sign: Ezra Smith Wildlife Conservation Area. Now that designation will be permanent. I know Dad would be thrilled to see kids enjoying this special place.

We hope to raise $30,000 so that Kennebec Land Trust will have the funds needed to pay property taxes on the woodlot and manage it over the years, including building and maintaining the trails and signs, publishing my booklet of stories, hosting events there, and encouraging public use focused on kids. The woodlot will be managed primarily for wildlife habitat.

We have raised $16,000 so far, and would be very pleased if you are able to help us achieve this goal. Please make your donation payable to Kennebec Land Trust, specify that the donation is for the Ezra Smith Wildlife Conservation Area, and mail it to KLT at 331 Main St., Winthrop 04364.

I was thrilled and very appreciative last year to receive the Harry Richardson Environmental Leadership Award from the Maine Conservation Voters, “For writing, speaking, advocating, and inspiring all of us to protect the woods, waters, and wildlife of Maine.”

It pains me when I hear our political leaders attack our exceptional conservation groups, and fail to understand how important these conservation lands are to all of us, and the wild creatures we love. Don’t believe them.

George Smith can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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