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Environment and Outdoors

$6.5 Million in Conservation Bonds, Held Up by LePage, Officially Expire

AUGUSTA, Maine — As Maine hunters take to the woods on the first regular day of deer season Monday, many are finding access to traditional hunting grounds blocked by landowners who are posting their property. Ironically, this is also the day that nearly $6.5 million in voter-approved Land for Maine's Future bonds expire. Those bonds allow the purchase of land for public use.

State Rep. Martin Grohman is a Democrat representing Biddeford, but his roots are in the western Maine town of Carthage, where his family has hunted for decades. This year, he received his moose permit and headed back to Carthage to try his luck. But things had changed.

"We came into this parcel and had been hunting there for many, many years and here comes a fellow from Connecticut on his four-wheeler — well within his rights — posted that land, an 80-acre parcel," Grohman says. "It was a bit of a shock to the system to say the least."

Grohman joined several lawmakers for a State House press conference highlighting the Land for Maine's Future Program as the best hope Mainers have to access land for hunting and other recreation. As he spoke a crucial deadline to authorize voter-approved conservation bonds for that purpose passed.

Gov. Paul LePage refuses to release them until the Legislature agrees to allow revenue from timber harvesting on public lands to be used for home energy assistance programs.

Rep. Matthew Pouliot, an Augusta Republican, says supporters of an LMF bond project in his district were forced to borrow money to keep their plan afloat after LePage declined to release the 2010 bonds.

"Today the 2010 LMF bond officially expires," Pouilot says. "This puts several million dollars of voter-approved bonds in doubts and some 20 projects in the pipeline at all corners of Maine at stake. Not authorizing the sale of the bonds goes against the will of nearly 60 percent of Maine voters who approved them in 2010 — the clock is ticking."

LePage has not wavered, even though Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has expressed doubts that revenue from harvested timber can be legally be used as the governor would like.

The governor has, however, released $2.2 million in operating money for the LMF commission that he had previously frozen. Tom Abello of the Nature Conservancy says that money is supporting several outstanding projects in the mix.

"Right now there's a working waterfront project in Tenants Harbor — that will go forward," Abello says. "There are two projects that have closed in the conservation recreation bucket — that's Crooked River and Eagle Bluffs — those two will also both close. They have their funding and LMF staff is now working on which other projects in that pipeline are going to be able to move forward and close."

In the meantime, conservationists, fishermen and others will have to wait until the Legislature returns in January to see what will happen to the 2010 voter-approved bonds.

Maine law permits the Legislature to extend the window for issuing the bonds for up to two years if the five-year deadline passes without their release. Rep. Pouliot has prepared a bill to do just that, and there are other pieces of bond legislation that could also be approved, including a bill that would require the governor to immediately release any conservation bonds approved by the voters.

Democratic House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe says Mainers want the Legislature to confront the governor.

"We're feeling a great deal of pressure from citizens back home to really release these bonds and get this moving," McCabe says.

Despite that public support, David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine and a former lawmaker, says passing those bills is one thing — attracting two-thirds support to override a governor's veto is another.

"It's always going to be a difficult effort to override the governor's veto when Ken Fredette, the Republican leader in the House, is supporting the governor," Trahan says.

A recently released statewide poll found that Maine Democrats, independents and Republicans overwhelmingly support the release of all voter-approved Land for Maine's Future funds.