Roughly three dozen projects are expected to apply for approximately $3.2 million in state funding through Maine’s premier conservation program. And one of the projects — a bid to conserve a remote, 23,600-acre swath of timberland and its plantation of sugar maples in Somerset County — is seeking $1.2 million.
The Somerset County project, also known as Big Six, has already generated scrutiny because it’s not typical of the projects funded by the Land for Maine’s Future program. The 30-year-old program is credited with conserving over 600,000 acres of land in Maine and preserving areas under threat of development, while providing access to the public for recreational purposes.
Big Six is different from other LMF projects. Tucked at the northwest edge of Somerset County, it’s relatively inaccessible to Mainers, requiring rough travel on old timber roads or multiple border crossings into Canada. But the area is considered valuable as a working forest, specifically a 4,500-acre sugarbush that’s credited with producing up to 25 percent of Maine’s maple syrup production.
Tom Abello is with the Nature Conservancy, which supported Big Six’s successful application for over $3.5 million in federal Forest Legacy funds.
“There’s a rather significant maple sugar operation. I think one of the things that makes it unique is that there has been strong support from the administration and strong support from the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry,” he said.
A report by Maine Public found that much of the maple production at Big Six is done by Canadian syrup producers. And most of the syrup that’s produced there is shipped to wholesalers in New Hampshire and Vermont, where it’s sold as a product of the U.S., not Maine.
Some have also questioned whether the landowner, Madison businessman Paul Fortin, is getting special consideration because he has financially backed Republican Gov. Paul LePage as a candidate and, later, a political action committee set up by the governor to influence the composition of the Legislature.
LePage has repeatedly blasted the LMF program as benefiting only wealthy landowners.
Fortin has rejected assertions of special consideration and says his bid to protect the Big Six sugarbush is motivated by financial considerations. He bought the property in 2012 and leases thousands of taps to the maple sugar producers who have set up camps on the property.
But Fortin says the tap leases aren’t enough to pay the bank loan for the property. He has successfully applied for a $3.5 million grant through the federal Forest Legacy Program and is now requesting roughly $1.2 million from LMF to complete the conservation easement.
The Trust for Public Land is backing the Big Six project and making the application on Fortin’s behalf. J.T. Horn, who is overseeing the project, said he planned to submit the application for Big Six on Friday.
Sarah Demers, director of LMF, told Maine Public that the applications for the next round of funding are confidential until the board begins vetting them in November. Horn said he would share a copy of the Big Six application with Maine Public before then.
Demers says the board, which is appointed by the governor, could adjust the amount of money available for the next round of projects. It will meet Nov. 7 to begin reviewing the applications and it’s expected to make its recommendations later in the month.
Demers said she will provide a list of all the applicants applying for LMF funds next week. She also said the amount of available LMF funds could change.
Abello said the LMF board will have a lot of latitude to score Big Six and the 38 other projects expected to apply for funds.
“And so it will be really interesting to see how this board works together, how it scores those projects and how it decides where to invest that money,” he said.
Abello said the proposals are diverse, from working waterfront and water access, to recreational and forestland projects.
The application deadline is Friday. The LMF board begins reviewing the applications on Nov. 7.
This story has been corrected to indicate that the Big Six project is applying for $1.2 million in LMF funds, not $2 million.
This story was originally published Sept. 14, 2017 at 11:45 a.m. ET.