Forecaster Forum: The importance of Land for Maine's Future

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Maine has many positive attributes that make this state a wonderful place to live. One of those attributes, public access to the beautiful land that surrounds us, is something we often take for granted. We sometimes forget that good public policy promoted conservation in Maine for years, leaving a legacy of respect for the land.

Mainers have become stewards of a natural resource that people from outside the state travel miles to experience. The state and organizations representing groups that access the land for a variety of purposes – hikers, hunters, snowmobilers – have historically acted in concert to create something Mainers can be proud of. A rarity in today’s political landscape, our state found a way for government and volunteer organizations to come together and work toward a common purpose.

We were recently invited by members of the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust to walk some of the properties protected by the organization and discuss legislative priorities for the upcoming session. What remained on everyone’s mind was the shortsighted treatment of the Land for Maine’s Future Program by the governor and some of his legislative supporters.

Legislation to assure continued support for land protection in Maine was blocked when Republicans in the House sustained the governor’s veto of a bill intended to free up bond funding that had been previously approved overwhelmingly by voters. With that action, one of Maine’s greatest attributes – public access to land – has been put in jeopardy.

The governor made the bizarre argument that Land for Maine’s Future is a program that only benefits the rich. That simply turns reality on its head. Recent surveys confirm the general public’s support for the program, support that cuts across all demographics and regions of the state. That’s because people who visit and use conserved land come from all walks of life. They are Maine’s hunters, hikers, bikers, dog-walkers and fishermen. They are young families and retirees.

The property we recently walked, Thorne Head Preserve, is in Bath. Developed with a combination of public funds and contributions from individuals who responded to the fundraising effort of KELT, the preserve is a beautiful parcel of land between the Kennebec River and Whiskeag Creek. Several miles of trials enable visitors to experience upland wooded areas or to follow the rivers’ edge.

The preserve is also tied to the Whiskeag Trail, a five-mile hiking and mountain bike path developed by the land trust, the city of Bath and the Bath YMCA. It’s another successful public-private partnership. Thorne Head is available for a range of uses, and, unlike some state owned land, there are no fees to access the property. Volunteers maintain it at no cost to taxpayers.

The governor’s actions and his attacks on the many groups doing the hard work on behalf of the public to sponsor land conservation efforts like Thorne Head are unacceptable. They aim to eliminate public support for projects such as those promoted by KELT and other land trusts across the state.

We cannot let him succeed. If he does, future land conservation efforts will fail, and land that the public could have used will end up in the hands of some out-of-state developer who can make sure regular working people are kept far away forever.

Conservation projects keep land in the public domain. They improve the livability of communities throughout Maine and attract visitors from outside the region. They provide nature classrooms for elementary school students, and they boost surrounding businesses.

We sincerely hope that readers will join with us to keep the pressure on the governor and on lawmakers to release voter-approved Land for Maine’s Future bonds, and keep conservation for the public alive and well.

Rep. Jennifer DeChant, a Bath Democrat, is in her second term in the Maine House. Rep. Jay McCreight, also a Democrat, is serving her first term representing Harpswell, West Bath and part of Brunswick.