AUGUSTA — Advocates for hunting, fishing, farming and outdoor recreation urged lawmakers Monday to send a $5 million borrowing package aimed at helping land conservation efforts in Maine to voters in November.
"This bond is quite simply an investment in the cornerstone of Maine's economy and our quality of life, the land," Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said. "Our natural resources are what set Maine apart. They are our biggest competitive advantage. Preserving and conserving them has got to be a top priority as we develop growth."
Katz, a sponsor of the bond package and co-chairman of the Legislature's Appropriation Committee, said the bond issue would go toward the Maine for Land's Future Program. The program, largely funded with matching grant money and state bonds has, since its inception, preserved 25 working farms, 250,000 acres of working commercial timberlands and access to the state's working waterfronts and coastal sites, Katz said.
According to information from the Land For Maine's Future Board of Directors, the program has also conserved or created jobs, including 550 forestry, construction, fishing and agriculture jobs. The lands conserved under the program, which allows public access for recreation in most cases, have also created or preserved 510 tourism-related jobs.
David Ramsey, president of the Brownville Snowmobile Club in Brownville, said the Land for Maine's Future program has been instrumental in keeping trail systems open and complete.
"What are trails?" Ramsey asked. "They are the snowmobiling industry in Maine, in excess of $300 million brought into the state of Maine each year. This money is very important, very important to small towns like Brownville."
Others who spoke during a short rally in the Hall of Flags at the State House on Monday included Carole Dyer, a hunter from Bowdoinham; Melanee Osier-Gilbert, a fisherman from Bremen; and David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine.
Trahan urged lawmakers to support the land bond, but also encouraged them to add to it. He and Gerry Lavigne, a retired deer biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, both said conserving deer wintering yards was an essential function of the state's land conservation efforts.
Conserving mature coniferous forest and forest areas near rivers and lakes needs to be increased if Maine hoped to re-establish its historic whitetail populations, Lavigne said.
"We probably have only a third of the deer wintering habitat in the northern part of the state that we had at the time we had good deer populations," Lavigne said.
"Over next 20 years or so we are going to be seeing a lot of this forest regenerate into a condition that again can support deer. But the real challenge is to be able to hold these forests in good condition for deer habitat long into the future," he said.
The Land for Maine's Future program was an option that allowed the state to take over management of these forest lands in a variety of ways, Lavigne said, including fee purchase agreements with landowners or outright purchases.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan spoke on how the Land For Maine's Future program allowed his community to create the 320-acre, day-use Lake George Regional Park. He said the park was a unique resource for the towns of Canaan and Skowhegan but was also an attraction for visitors from other places.
"Being from Skowhegan we are like many, many Maine towns," McCabe said, "we work hard, we play hard and we recognize that our economy is based on the natural resources. It is really about our health and our way of life."
This week the Legislature is expected to vote on whether it will send the borrowing package and four others totalling $96 million to the voters.
Together the separate borrowing packages raise money for roads and bridges, research and development at state universities and colleges, as well as port improvements.
To be passed on to the voters for final approval, the bonds need to be passed by a two-thirds majority in both the State House of Representatives and the Maine Senate.
Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, said the governor had not yet weighed in on the borrowing package. He was waiting until lawmakers finalized the state's budget, she said.
"The governor has yet to come to any sort of conclusion on bonds," Bennett said in an email message. "The governor’s first priority is finalizing the budget to ensure that state spending is under control and that long-term savings are achieved. Once the budget is finalized, the governor will take a look at the bond initiatives and weigh in."
Lawmakers are also expected to vote on a proposal that would close an $80 million budget shortfall in the state's Department of Health and Human Services this week.