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Environment and Outdoors

Pent-up demand expected to drive surge in applications for LMF funding

Bridget Brown
via the Bangor Daily News
Mount Kineo, which was acquired through the Land for Maine's Future program in 1990, rises out of Moosehead Lake.

A popular, state-run land conservation program is about to experience a windfall after several years of financial drought. And pent-up demand is expected to drive a surge in applications to the Land for Maine's Future program.

Over the past 34 years, Maine voters have approved more than $100 million in bonds to protect unique landscapes, shorelines and working farms or waterfronts throughout the state. Those bond measures consistently passed with broad support. But the program has been running on empty after land conservation became a political football during the administration of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Earlier this year, lawmakers opted to directly tap the state budget and provide $40 million to LMF over four years rather than go to Maine voters. That means conservation groups have their first opportunity since 2017 to apply for LMF funding.

"I would say, based on the rate of my email inbox and the phone calls I get, it's a daily basis that we are getting inquiries from folks,” said LMF director Sarah Demers. “My sense is there is a lot of interest out there."

Demers said her office has received seven official inquiries for projects of statewide significance that offer "rare or exceptional" resources and often involve state agencies. Demers will update LMF's board on the initial interest during a meeting on Tuesday. But she is also expecting much more demand from conservation groups for local or regional projects by that application deadline in April.

Beth Ahearn, director of government affairs for the nonprofit group Maine Conservation Voters, said she expects “tremendous interest.” And while demand will likely exceed funding, Ahearn called $10 million a year "really wonderful."

"The pandemic taught us that people really depend on the outdoors,” Ahearn said. “Mainers and visitors to outdoor parks and conservation areas grew exponentially and record numbers were hit. So people really needed to be outside for psychological health as well as physical wellbeing during the pandemic.”

The LMF program has helped to conserve more than 600,000 acres since 1987.