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Maine Ag Department Moves To Acquire Conservation Easement for State's Largest Sugarbush

Kevin Bennett
For Maine Public
Bernard Rodrigue removes taps from maple trees at his sugar camp on Monday, May 1. He runs the camp with his father on land leased from Paul Fortin in Big Six township along the Maine-Quebec border.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is moving to acquire a $1.2 million conservation easement to protect a remote plantation of sugar maples — meaning it could soon become a stakeholder in Maine’s maple syrup industry.

The department has confirmed that it is the lead applicant for a 23,600-acre swath of timberland in Somerset County — also known as Big Six — which accounts for about a quarter of the state’s maple syrup output. By doing so, the department is seeking public funding to purchase the easement through the Land for Maine’s Future program, a program that it also oversees.

State agencies have previously been co-applicants on LMF projects. In this instance, however, the department could effectively become the steward of a sugarbush parcel, where most of the production is done by Canadian companies.

Proponents of the project say the easement will be designed to protect the sugarbush. However, details of the LMF application and any proposed agreement between the state and the landowner, Madison businessman Paul Fortin, are not yet public.

The LMF board is made up of appointees of Republican Gov. Paul LePage and three of his cabinet members, including Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry who oversees LMF itself.

Big Six is among 26 applications submitted last week for the next round of LMF funding, according to LMF director Sarah Demers.

The project has generated scrutiny because it’s not typical of others funded by the Land for Maine’s Future program.

Public access to the property is limited. Tucked into the northwest edge of Somerset County, Big Six is relatively inaccessible to Mainers, requiring rough travel on old timber roads or multiple border crossings into Canada, and its remote location has also raised questions about the threat of development — a standard requirement for conservation protection.

The Trust for Public Land is a co-applicant for the easement. When TPL first applied for funds through the Forest Legacy program, the application was rejected because the development threat to Big Six didn’t score high enough.

TPL reapplied, citing development pressure from Quebec City, and provided a letter from a Canadian real estate broker who said the area could be developed for recreational purposes, such as camping.

Supporters are also stressing Big Six’s importance to retaining Maine’s standing as one of the top syrup producers in the region.

Earlier this year, a report by Maine Public found that much of the maple production at Big Six is done by Canadian syrup producers. And most of the syrup that's produced there is shipped to wholesalers in New Hampshire and Vermont, where it’s sold as a product of the U.S., not Maine.

Still, the LePage administration is supporting the easement, which could be overseen by the Bureau of Public Lands, a division of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

LePage has repeatedly railed against the LMF program, previously saying that it benefits rich landowners while removing property from the tax rolls.

Such comments have led some to question whether Big Six is receiving the governor’s backing for political reasons. Fortin financially backed LePage as a candidate and, later, donated to a political action committee set up by the governor to influence the composition of the Legislature.

Credit Kevin Bennett / For Maine Public
Paul Fortin in Big Six township along the Maine-Quebec border in May.

Fortin has rejected assertions that he’s getting a sweetheart deal because of his political connections.

He says his bid to protect Big Six is motivated by financial considerations. He bought the property in 2012 and leases thousands of taps to maple sugar producers who have set up sophisticated operations on the property — and, in one instance, installed power lines to bring in electricity from Quebec.

But Fortin says the tap leases aren’t enough to pay the bank loan for the property. He has successfully applied for a $3.5 million grant from the federal Forest Legacy Program and is now requesting roughly $1.2 million from LMF to complete the conservation easement.

Demers, director of LMF, says it’s not unusual for the state to partner with other organizations — in this instance the Trust for Public Lands — to apply for LMF funds.

“When undertaking a land acquisition, the State also relies on partner organizations to assist with fundraising and the extensive real estate requirements of funders such as the Land for Maine’s Future program,” Demers wrote in an email. “The State does not privately fundraise, and typically does not have dedicated funds available to cover the costs associated with an appraisal, survey, environmental site assessment, etc…which on a large project, can total hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Demers said that such partnerships were necessary to acquire public lands such as Cold Stream Forest, Crocker Mountain, The Kennebec Highlands and portions of some state parks, including Camden Hills.

The 30-year-old LMF program is credited with conserving over 600,000 acres of land in Maine and preserving areas under threat of development, while providing access to the public for recreational purposes.

Applications for the next round of LMF funding of roughly $4 million are confidential until the board begins vetting them in November.

According to Demers, 26 applications were submitted requesting a total nearly $7 million in LMF funds.

Demers says the board could adjust the amount of money available for the next round of projects. It will meet Nov. 7 to begin reviewing the applications and it’s expected to make its recommendations later in the month.

This story was originally published Sept. 21, 2017, at 4:00 p.m. ET.