BANGOR (AP) – A group of land trusts has quietly been building support to buy conservation easements on about 340,000 acres of land in eastern Washington County.

The project, called Downeast Lakes Forestry Partnership, involves the New England Forestry Foundation of Groton, Mass.; Woodie Wheaton Land Trust of Forest City; Downeast Lakes Land Trust of Grand Lake Stream; the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Indian Township; the state; and unidentified private residents.

The partnership hopes to raise $35 million in the next two years to arrange for easements on the land.

Steve Schaefer, president of Downeast Lakes Land Trust, said the aim is to maintain public access to the lands.

“And if we don’t do it, somebody will shut it off, whether it’s a park or a kingdom buyer,” he said, referring to private developers. “We don’t know what the future is. This is the best alternative we can come up with.”

Supporters say the project will include three purchases, one of which is the 3,019 acres known as the Spednic Lake-St. Croix River shoreline conservation corridor acquired last month by the state.

Another 27,080 acres, called Farm Cove Peninsula Lands and located west of Grand Lake Stream, will be purchased and managed by the Downeast Lakes Land Trust. The New England Forestry Foundation will also purchase easements over what are known as the Sunrise Tree Farm and Farm Cover from Downeast Lakes Land Trust.

The drive is being spearheaded by the New England Forestry Foundation, which says the easements would be positioned between 450,000 acres of protected lands in New Brunswick and 200,000 acres of state, federal and Indian lands in Maine.

The foundation says the easement purchases would result in about 1 million acres of “uninterrupted habitat across an international boundary.”

Such an effort could be controversial.

For years, big paper companies owned and controlled much of Maine’s forest lands. In the past decade, the state, various land trusts and some paper companies have agreed to a series of conservation easements that allow traditional uses to continue, but restrict development.

Yet many people in Maine’s rural communities remain wary of outside groups trying to develop a national park or possibly ban use of private camps or logging in their areas.

In January, a letter with Downeast Lakes Land Trust letterhead was sent to communities explaining what the project is all about. Still, questions remain.

“Who is this Downeast Lakes Forestry Partnership?” asked John Morrison, a Baileyville town councilor, during a council meeting last week. “Is it local people, Maine people, Massachusetts people? And where do they get their funding?”

Baileyville town manager Jack Clukey said it is his understanding that the easements would allow all current recreational uses, but the development and access rights would be owned by the trust partnership.

“So they own the development rights with the purpose of not developing the property,” Clukey said.

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