The state has lost its bid to purchase a $1.2 million conservation easement to protect a remote plantation of sugar maples in Somerset County.
The 23,600-acre project, known as Big Six, was competing with two-dozen other funding requests from the Land for Maine’s Future program. But on Thursday, the LMF board scratched it from the list of finalists.
Of the two dozen projects scored by the board Thursday, Big Six scored dead last. The LMF board refused to give the project additional points previously awarded to only four other LMF projects. Without those extra points, Big Six fell to the bottom of the pack.
“The key to recognizing the maple sugarbush that’s there was tied up in the point category of the single exceptional value. And we missed those points,” said J.T. Horn with the Trust for Public Land, a co-applicant for the Big Six easement along with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
The push to approve the Big Six project has focused on the timberland’s maple syrup production, which is said to account for roughly 20 percent of the state’s total output. But in May, an examination by Maine Public found that most of the syrup produced there is never sold in Maine, but to out-of-state wholesalers who turn around and market it as a product of the U.S.
Also, the maple syrup operation is done exclusively by Canadian producers who have have easy access to the property, and in some instances have harvested sap there for generations.
Subsidizing Canadian syrup production was a problem for several LMF board members. So was the fact that accessing Big Six typically requires two border crossings and using a network of logging roads in Maine’s North Woods, all of them are private, with no legal guarantee that the public can use them.
“Keep in mind the size of the investment — $1.25 million — and we do not have legal access to that property,” said LMF board member Fred Bucklin, who questioned whether taxpayers should buy an easement with no guarantee of public access. “I can imagine how this would play to people looking at this from the outside. ‘You paid $1.25 million for a piece for property you can’t even get to? It doesn’t make sense to me.’“
LMF director Sara Demers said such limited access could be precendent-setting for an LMF project.
Supporters of the project have said Big Six could be a model for future conservation deals that involve maple syrup production. But Big Six has drawn attention for reasons other than its syrup production.
It’s the one project supported by Gov. Paul LePage, who has called the LMF program “corrupt.” The landowner, Madison businessman Paul Fortin, has donated to the governor’s election campaigns and a political action committee he controls.
Fortin also said he’ll likely cut the sugarbush and sell it as timber if he doesn’t get the easement. Some critics have questioned why he would cut the trees when he’s making money leasing taps to the Canadian producers.
William Jarvis, a forest manager from Jackman who works with other landowners with maple syrup operations in the area, says 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.
Fortin and the Trust for Public Lands successfully convinced the federal Forest Legacy Program to pay for a $3.5 million easement for the property. But that money was contingent on the $1.2 million from LMF.
The LMF board announced the other projects that did qualify for funding, but the specific dollar amounts won’t be disclosed until next week.