AUGUSTA, Maine - Conservation and recreation groups say three dozen conservation projects totaling 50,000 acres around Maine are in jeopardy because of Gov. Paul LePage's refusal to release voter-approved bonds.
Funding for the projects is overseen by the Land for Maine's Future Program. Environmental groups say it's a repeat performance of 2013, when the governor also withheld bond money to win political leverage.
Eagle Bluff in Clifton is a popular spot to rock climb - it's sometimes even referred to as the "Crown Jewel" of central Maine rock climbing. The chairman of the Clifton Planning Board, Eric Johns, says he spent a couple of years forging partnerships with local conservation and business organizations to preserve it. So he's upset that Eagle Bluff is currently one of the Land for Maine's Future projects threatened by the lack of funding.
"It's very annoying to me that all of these people got together, on their own without any help from the governor whatsoever, except for just to apply for this grant. And then we got the grant, and now all of a sudden, all of these prior people who worked together, with all private funds, with all pro bono, are now facing the loss of something that we worked hard for," Johns says.
According to environmental and recreation groups, it's a situation that shouldn't be happening. In 2010 and 2012, 60 percent of voters approved bonds for the Land for Maine's Future - about $14 million worth. Gov. LePage withheld the bond funds in 2013 as leverage while seeking legislative approval to pay back debt the state owed to hospitals.
"When that was resolved, the governor committed to releasing the LMF bonds and others on an expedited basis," says Tim Glidden, president of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Glidden says the governor now appears to be backing down from that commitment.
The Land for Maine's Future currently has about $2 million on hand, but $11 million remains to be borrowed. "We're very concerned that promises made are not going to kept," Glidden says.
The reason for the concern is that in late February grant recipients, ready to close on transactions, received a notice from the Land for Maine's Future Director Sarah Demers that the program could not make previously committed funds available. Demers says she received that information from her agency - the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry.
But she says she can't provide any information as to why the funds are not available. "You know, I don't - I don't have any information on that."
A spokesman for the department declined comment. Gov. LePage's spokesperson, Adrienne Bennett, says the governor is focused on other issues and will look into the matter. But Republican Sen. Tom Saviello says the reason Gov. LePage is withholding the bond money is because he wants support for increased timber harvesting on Maine's lands.
"I believe, and have been told, that the governor right now feels this is important to him," Saviello says. "And he wants to have, and will hold, as a political maneuver the money for Land for Maine's Future. Is that something new? I mean, I've been here 13 years, it happens all the time. It happened under the Baldacci administration. I can't go through my memory banks to remember when that happened, but it happened."
David Trahan, of the Maine Sportsman's Alliance, says the Land for Maine's Future bond money shouldn't get caught up in the political process. He says the projects at stake - which span across 13 counties, and range from recreational areas to farmland to working waterfront protection - play an important role in Maine's economy.
"A lot of these projects are either in the process of being finished, the money has already been approved, they've gone out for a vote," Trahan says. "And when these things are held up, it really sends a poor message to any other landowners who want to do business with the state of Maine."
The Land for Maine's Future will discuss the issue at its next meeting on March 17.