The Kennebago River is known by fishing enthusiasts to contain some of the finest wild brook trout habitat in the United States. Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust

The Land for Maine’s Future board voted Thursday to withhold $1.7 million in grants to protect about 6,700 acres of prime trout fishing area along the Kennebago River in western Maine because the local land trust behind the deal cannot guarantee public access.

The two parcels chosen to receive money from the state’s land conservation fund in 2022 are part of the $11 million, 10,000-acre Kennebago Headwaters project. The area provides high-quality habitat for the eastern brook trout and is home to moose, Canada lynx and marten.

But what the parcels do not have is deeded public access, which proved an insurmountable hurdle for some board members who assert that land purchased through the taxpayer-funded Land for Maine’s Future program must be able to be used, or at least seen, by the public.

“It’s hard not to love this project,” said board member Barbara Trafton of Brunswick, a former state lawmaker who has served on both Maine Audubon and The Nature Conservancy boards. “For me, for decades, the priority purpose for LMF funds has always been guaranteed public access.”

The Rangeley Heritage Land Trust’s request for state funds despite a lack of guaranteed access failed with a 4-4 board vote. Maine Agriculture Commissioner Amanda Beal, a board member who had previously argued that the ecological value of the parcels outweighed the risk, was on vacation and did not attend.

The trust could not be reached Thursday to discuss its future plans or to comment on the vote.


But Thursday’s vote doesn’t mean the Kennebago project is dead, according to LMF Program Director Stephen Walker. The board vote that failed was to confirm funding, not to deny or withdraw the grant. The trust will have two years to lock down deeded public access before losing the LMF grants, he said.

Or a board member could change their mind, Walker said. The former wildlife biologist is new to LMF, but he believes that some board members wrongly believe that ironclad public access is required for a parcel to get program money. He said it is a factor to be considered, but not the only one.

For example, the board also values a property’s ability to sequester carbon to help the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to meet Gov. Janet Mills’ goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045. To help do that, Maine has a goal of protecting 30% of Maine’s lands by 2030.

Walker noted that a partial review of project awards dating back to the project’s 1987 inception revealed at least seven parcels that don’t seem to have legal deeded public access, including Mattawamkeag Lake, Mount Abram, Katahdin Forest, Moose River and Millinocket Forest.

It’s not as if the public can’t access the Kennebago parcels right now, Walker said. Three roads lead into the area, including two forest management roads and a public road. The timber company that owns the forest roads hasn’t responded to the trust’s request for access.

The land trust has deeded access to the land over another road, but the deed does not explicitly provide for public access, Walker said. The land trust has struggled to track down the heirs of the now-deceased property owner to expand the property’s access to the public at large.

The chance of the public losing access to the site is remote, at best, Walker said.

“I’m satisfied with the explanations we’ve been given,” said Jim Norris of Winthrop, a forester and longtime board member who made the motion to award the grants. “I feel they are more than adequate. The significance of this particular project can’t be underestimated.”

The Land for Maine’s Future was established in 1987 when Maine residents voted to fund $35 million to purchase lands of statewide importance. Since its inception, it has spent almost $125 million to protect more than 630,000 acres of land, waterways and working waterfronts.

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