For the first time in about three years, the Land for Maine’s Future board is considering funding for more than two-dozen conservation and water access projects around the state.
The projects range in size from a boat landing in Lubec and a 129-acre farm in Arundel to the 23,000-acre Bix Six Township in remote Somerset County on the Canadian border. But funding is limited, and the competition is fierce.
Of all the project finalists, Big Six has drawn the most attention. It’s the one LMF project supported by Gov. Paul LePage, who has called the state program “corrupt” and criticized the use of public funding to conserve land and take it off the tax rolls.
What’s also raised eyebrows is the landowner’s political contributions to LePage’s campaigns. But the parcel is also a big deal for Maine’s maple sugar industry, and proponents laid that out during a public hearing on Tuesday.
“It was identified by Maine’s Maple Sugar Task Force as a priority for conservation,” said Liz Petruska with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, which would manage a conservation easement on the property to preserve it as working forest — in this case to keep it in maple sugaring production.
The landowner has suggested that absent the money from an easement, his business plan could include taking out the taps and cutting down the trees.
“It’s one of the U.S.’s most significant maple sugar production sites and accounts for more 20 percent of Maine’s supplies, so a really critical sugar resource,” Petruska said.
But first the Bureau and its partner, the Trust for Public Land, need $1.2 million in LMF funding to purchase the easement. The project has already been awarded $3.8 million by the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, which ranked it 6th out of 41 conservation projects around the country last year.
Big Six supporters include legislators and conservation groups. It also has its critics.
“A conservation easement, I always thought, is supposed to conserve something. I don’t understand what this is conserving,” said Kerry Hegarty of Jackman, who works for other landowners in the area, including maple syrup producers.
Hegarty told the LMF board that the project makes no sense since there would be no reason for a landowner to cut down 4,000 acres of productive sugarbush.
“Why do that, when the maple industry is booming anyway? It’s going real good. I mean, excellent. And it doesn’t need to be subsidized in any way, if that’s what this is,” he said.
Hegarty and others pointed out that there are 340,000 maple syrup taps on the property, leased to operators — all Canadian — who are charged $1.25 per tap. They say that’s well above the going rate.
William Jarvis, a forest manager from Jackman who works with other landowners with maple syrup operations in the area, wrote a letter to the LMF board urging them to reject the Big Six application because, he said, the trees, with all the holes from the taps, have little value except for maple syrup.
“The value of the wood is not that great. In 6-8 years he’s generating enough off the leases to cover all of the wood if he cut it down and sold it,” he said.
LMF board members, which include LePage appointees and commissioners from three state departments, must evaluate whether the competing projects have exceptional values, whether they’re accessible to the public and whether they’re at significant risk of development.
They’ll have to spend their money wisely. There’s just $4 million available for proposals that total just under $7 million. But J.T. Horn of the Trust for Public Land said the application for Big Six is similar to other big working forest projects that have been protected.
“I really think, first and foremost, it should be viewed as sort of a consistent application of this mix of federal and state funding that’s protected lots of other land in the North Woods, and we’re trying to stay in that same pattern,” he said.
The LMF board will begin ranking and scoring the projects at a meeting on Thursday.