Down East 2013 ©
One of Maine’s largest and most significant conservation projects may be funded in the next month and most people have never heard of it. Even the name of the project has caused confusion.
Some are calling it the Great Maine Forest Initiative. A Maine Steering Committee now calls it the Keeping Maine’s Forest initiative. The federal government, which is expected to provide the funding, calls it their Treasured Landscapes project.
Last Friday the Maine Steering Committee, chaired by Alec Giffin, Director of the Maine Forest Service, met to debate a number of important issues, including which section of the state would be the target of this ambitious project. A key official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was in Maine yesterday to talk about it. Fast Track doesn’t begin to describe this amazingly undefined project, and that troubles some interest groups.
With a bit of patience, you can find information about Keeping Maine’s Forests in the Bureau of Forestry’s section of the Department of Conservation’s website .
Forget for now the Great Maine Forest Initiative. That’s an ambitious project launched by the Baldacci Administration. Keeping Maine’s Forests has all the momentum. The Administration insists KMF is part of GMFI, but it can be described more accurately as a stand-alone project launched well before GMFI was announced.
If you want to keep your eye on the ball, Keeping Maine’s Forests is the project to watch.
Here’s how the Steering Committee describes KMF: “At its heart, this is a proposal to maintain a sustainably managed forest landscape which continues to produce wood products and protects ecological values, while maintaining and improving recreational opportunities.”
The initiative recently added a new goal: “to contribute to meeting Maine’s energy needs by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and high energy costs.”
Steering Committee members come from state agencies, environmental and conservation groups, and landowners. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap represents the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine for which I work.
Their dream of securing a large chunk of Maine by purchasing easements or fee ownership to sustain the forest and outdoor industries, was born last July when Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, visited Maine at the invitation of U.S. Senator Susan Collins, and expressed the Obama Administration’s interest in conserving what he called “treasured landscapes.”
At that time the Keeping Maine’s Forests project was well underway, so it was easy to link that project with the federal dollars Salazar was hinting might come our way. Salazar seems to have an interest in moving beyond the existing Forest Legacy federal program that purchases development rights on large forest tracks to keep the land in commercial forestry. He has stressed that any Treasured Landscapes projects must have broad-based support including landowners, environmentalists, and sportsmen, and benefit both the forest and outdoor economies.
That’s a tall order given that these interests are often fighting. In fact, two days before the Steering Committee meeting last week the same interests were presenting to the legislature significantly different visions for the comprehensive plan of the Land Use Regulation Commission that governs the north woods and unorganized territories.
What are we buying?
The Steering Committee was presented with four potential projects for the federal funding but got conflicting information about just how much money would be available. Everyone seemed to agree that the window of opportunity to secure substantial federal funds is limited to the next 30 days, and future fiscal years at the federal level will see sharp decreases in federal conservation funding.
Despite the urgency, the Committee was unable to focus on a single project, choosing to keep all four proposals in play, at least for the next month. Here are “Maine’s Priority Forest Landscapes,” only one of which is likely to win federal funding. Most interesting is the information on what lands may be available for conservation purchases.
Downeast Priority Landscape
This is an area of 2.5 million acres, of which 500,000 acres are already conserved including the Moosehorn and Sunkhaze National Wildlife Refuges and over 94,000 acres conserved through the Forest Legacy Program.
Steering Committee members learned that “the 21,700-acre West Grand Lake Community Forest is the U.S. Forest Service and Maine’s top Forest Legacy priority for FY 2011. Other large landowners in the region have expressed strong interest in landscape-scale conservation easements (up to 200,000 acres), targeted fee acquisitions on pristine lakes and streams, potential additions to existing wildlife refuges and participating in stewardship programs.”
Western Mountain Lakes Priority Landscape
This includes the Rangeley Lakes, the Mashoosuc Mountains, the Upper Androscoggin River headwaters, and the High Peaks Region (10 of the 14 highest mountains in Maine). Almost one third of this priority landscape has been permanently conserved including the White Mountain National Forest, Umbagog National Refuge, and the state’s Pingree forest conservation project, the state’s largest forest easement (totaling 750,000 acres statewide).
Steering Committee members learned that “land trusts in the region have been working with area landowners on potential projects from strategic additions to existing federal ownerships to working forest easements in areas where development pressures will result in the loss of multiple-use forest lands if action is not taken soon.”
Moosehead to Katahdin Priority Landscape
This extends from the eastern shore of Moosehead Lake to the boundary of Baxter State Park. This region has been the focus of public and private conservation initiatives over the past decade with both The Nature Conservancy and Appalachian Mountain Club becoming significant conservation partners in the region. About one third of the priority landscape is under conservation ownership or easements.
Steering Committee members learned that “several large landowners in the region, many who have been reluctant to pursue conservation options in the past, are now interested in exploring conservation easements as well as other potential conservation options available through USDA.”
Allagash and St. John Rivers Priority Landscape
Two wild free-flowing rivers and the remote forest lands that surround them define this region. It includes the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and The Nature Conservancy’s ownership along the St. John River. About one third of the priority landscape is currently conserved, mostly through working forest easements and the AWW and St. John River ownerships.
Steering Committee members learned that “one of the region’s largest landowners is interested in selling up to 250,000 acres of forest land including approximately 80,000 acres that lie within the one-mile zone of the AWW.”
Where is this going?
The Allagash region proposal received a severe push-back from large landowners and landowner organizations on the Steering Committee. They said flat out that if fee-interest ownership purchases of land were part of the proposal that goes to the feds, they would withdraw their support from the project and quit the Steering Committee. It is understood that the purchase outlined above involves Irving’s forest land.
Some Steering Committee members are clearly concerned about any obligations that Maine will have to accept by taking the feds money for this special deal, and others think that Maine’s most threatened forestlands and wildlife habitat are in southern Maine, not the areas targeted by Keeping Maine’s Forests.
As the KMT project continues to be debated and refined, and the time frame to take advantage of the federal funding opportunity shrinks, it is likely that the Steering Committee will be forced to narrow their interest to a single region of the state.
And it is clear that only projects already “in the pipeline” and “ready to go” can be considered due to the short time frame.
Keeping Maine’s Forests is a major project that deserves the attention and participation of every Mainer. While it has been quietly percolating for some time, it is about to bubble over into the public arena.
Two challenges await: can KMF keep its Steering Committee together by selecting a project that all can support, and will the feds actually provide the large amount of money necessary to fund the selected project.
The answers may come in the next 30 days and certainly will arrive before the spring rains.