A diverse coalition of groups is crafting recommendations aimed at shaping “a new generation of land conservation in Maine” more than three decades after the creation of the Land for Maine’s Future program.

The 20-member task force has been meeting since late May in an effort to provide guidance to the next governor and Legislature on ways to improve conservation efforts in a state whose economy depends on fishing, farming, forestry and nature-based tourism. In many ways, the group also seeks to get beyond the political disputes with Gov. Paul LePage during the past eight years.

On Tuesday in Portland, the Task Force to Shape the Next Generation of Maine Land Conservation held the first of two public “listening sessions,” with the second slated for Thursday in Bangor. Several dozen people representing land trusts, environmental organizations and farmers shared feedback on the successes and challenges of the past 30-plus years as well as ways to improve conservation efforts.

“Please leave us with an inspiring and bold vision,” Jessica Burton, executive director of the Southern Maine Conservation Collaborative, told task force members gathered on the University of Southern Maine campus. “We need something new.”

Roughly 20 percent of land in Maine is protected through either conservation ownership or easements that restrict development. That is up from roughly 5 percent before the creation of the Land for Maine’s Future program, which utilizes voter-approved bonds to work with willing landowners to conserve forestlands, working waterfronts and farmland.

All LMF funds much be matched dollar-for-dollar with private or federal funds, and projects that receive funding must provide public access to the land.

Several speakers on Tuesday said the next Legislature should send to the voters a “bold” bond package proposing $75 million to $100 million in state borrowing to finance LMF projects for multiple years. The last LMF-related bond package presented to voters was in 2012 and LePage – a vocal critic of Maine’s conservation and environmental communities – has repeatedly attempted to use LMF bond revenues as political leverage, resulting in uncertainty and delays on projects.

Bill Toomey, northern New England director for the Trust for Public Land, said many complex conservation projects take years to negotiate and complete. So uncertainty over future funding can be a deterrent to some landowners that would otherwise consider conserving their land.

“Landowners deserve the assurances that the resources will be there when it comes to closing” on a deal, said Toomey.

The task force is not a creation of state government, and instead sprouted from the conservation community. But organizers recruited diverse membership representing hunting and fishing organizations, ATV Maine, the Maine Tourism Association, economic development groups as well as municipal and legislative officials.

The group is co-chaired by Tim Glidden, executive director of Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. And while the group’s membership is decidedly pro-conservation, it has also committed to discussing such thorny issues as the impacts of land conservation on municipal budgets and motorized recreational activities on protected lands.

“We have tried to look as broadly as possible at private landowner issues, stewardship issues and also private financing as well as public financing,” said Tom Abello, director of external affairs with The Nature Conservancy of Maine, which helped with organizing and funding the task force. “But we also tried to make the membership as broad as possible.”

During Tuesday’s listening session, representatives of farming organizations urged the group to support ensuring that the LMF program keeps separate tracts as well as distinct evaluation criteria for farmland preservation versus forest projects.

Others said they hoped the next governor will be more supportive of both LMF and the state’s participation in the federal Forest Legacy program. Maine has historically received more money than any other state for the Forest Legacy program, which helps conserve working forests, but its participation has fallen off under LePage.

Several speakers said they hoped LMF and other programs will help fill in Maine’s conservation map by assisting with local projects and in communities with limited public access to open space or the waterfront.

“Although I love Acadia National Park and looking out and seeing all of those mountains, we need those wild locations in our own backyard, too,” said Cindy Krum, executive director of the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust.

The next public listening session will be held Thursday from 3 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. at the Bangor Masonic Center, 294 Union St.

The group hopes to complete its work on potential recommendations in time to present a report to the next Legislature and new governor in February.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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