CANTON — A multiyear project to conserve about 1,250 acres of woodlands in Canton and Jay along the Androscoggin River was realized earlier this month in a deal between the Androscoggin Land Trust and Verso Paper Corp.
The land was purchased to connect multiuse trails around the Franklin and Oxford counties region, enhance recreational opportunities, continue to allow hunting and fishing, and sustainable timber harvesting, while bringing more visitors into towns, Michael Auger, executive director of the trust, said Tuesday in Auburn.
The trust closed the deal Oct. 6, buying the property from Verso for more than $259,000, Auger said. Verso operates the Androscoggin paper mill along the river in Jay.
Auger declined to confirm the actual six-figure amount. However, he said that to buy the land, the Land for Maine’s Future program contributed $259,185 to funds raised from numerous foundations and the Maine Natural Resource Conservation Program.
“Kudos to Verso for giving us a bargain sale,” Auger said. “It shows their commitment to see this land conserved.”
Ed Meadows, director of Land for Maine’s Future, and its project manager Sam Morris, said the conservation project will serve to reconnect community ties to the river, support its river heritage and expand upon the region’s economic development goals.
“It’s been a long process,” Meadows said. “We recognize and appreciate the support of the communities involved. It’s a very good project for us.”
The Land for Maine’s Future funding was approved in July 2011. It originally came from a 2007 bond issue approved by Maine voters.
“Androscoggin Land Trust has engaged with the communities to gain better understanding of how the river can support economic development goals,” Morris said.
“The proposal fits into the region’s strategies for economic development, reconnecting each respective community to the river, and overall, supports recreation and heritage tourism.”
Auger said the next step involves planning sessions between the trust and Canton, Jay and Livermore Falls officials and community stakeholders from recreational organizations.
The sessions will be held from year’s end into 2015 to create enhanced recreational opportunity through multiuse trails and with new access locations for paddlers to put in on the Androscoggin River. The project also preserves significant open space.
“It’s fantastic news” for the public, Auger said. “Both towns of Canton and Jay, and Livermore Falls have been very strong supporters of this from the very beginning.”
Comprised of about two dozen parcels, the land is a mix of uplands, wetlands, hardwoods, softwoods and mixed woods, he said.
“It’s very diverse and is in really good shape,” Auger said. “It’s our intent to manage it as a community forest or segments of a community forest. We want to keep these parcels the way they are.”
The majority of the land is in Canton, and there is about 3½ miles of river frontage. Auger said it is comprised of medium-age forests that have been harvested in the past.
“Not a lot is going to change, but we hope to get more recreational access,” Auger said. “This is the largest project in our 25-year history. This is significant, and we’re very grateful to have this opportunity to conserve these lands.”
In 1998, the trust initially received 950 acres along the Androscoggin River in a 46-year conservation lease from International Paper as part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing process. It was tied to dam releases, Auger said, to permanently protect the lands.
He said that in 2006, IP sold the Jay mill and its lands to Verso. The conservation lease followed the property. About four to five years ago, Auger said Verso decided to divest itself of the Androscoggin Greenway parcels with the caveat that they didn’t want the land converted into house lots.
“It wasn’t that the land had no value,” he said. “It just wasn’t part of their core business. They were only interested in retaining the land directly around the paper mill.
“But we were very interested in conserving land along the river for about 3½ miles, including the west and east sides off Route 140, and along the Seven-Mile Stream and on Spruce Mountain in Jay,” Auger said.
“It’s our intent to continue sustainable harvesting now that we own the land, and to work with Canton and Jay and to find out what they’re interested in.”
To that end, a University of Maine at Farmington intern started collecting information from community stakeholders, such as all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile clubs.
Part of the process of moving forward now involves starting forest, conservation and wildlife management planning, and ecological surveys.
“I imagine there’s a full suite of large mammals in there, but I don’t know,” Auger said.
Calls to Verso, Jay and Canton officials were not returned.
Auger said the trust’s intent is to take the money made from sustainable timber harvesting and invest it back into the land and do additional projects.
“We want to continue to do good work up there,” he said.