AUGUSTA (AP) – A $7.8 million conservation easement and land purchase will permanently protect nearly 25,000 acres along the Machias River and several of its Down East tributaries from development and keep them open for public recreation, Gov. John Baldacci announced Thursday.

The transaction involves several public and private organizations, including International Paper Co., which will continue to own the forest land and lease lots there.

The forest will be managed with sustainable cutting practices that protect the habitat for moose, black bear, wild turkey and other species, according to supporters of the agreement.

The agreement also protects 86 percent of the Atlantic salmon habitat within the Machias River system, one of the country’s most important spawning and nursery habitats for the federally recognized endangered species.

“The Machias River project is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect an entire river corridor,” said Kent Wommack, executive director of The Nature Conservancy. “Ask any river guide to name Maine’s best wilderness rivers and the Machias River will always come up.”

Baldacci, who hailed the Machias River as “a state landmark,” said the $7.8 million set-aside balances ecological, economic and recreational values of the river system. The money comes from a variety of public and private sources.

A conservation easement covers 18,443 acres, and the remaining 6,400 acres are being purchased outright.

New construction and development will be prohibited within the 1,000-foot easement along the Machias and six of its major tributaries. Public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, canoeing, camping and other outdoor activities is guaranteed. I.P. has permitted public access in the past.

I.P.’s sale of the land and easements is in line with its long-term strategy to divest some of its non-strategic assets while retaining about 1 million acres of forest in Maine to support its manufacturing activity in Maine, said the papermaking company’s Dave Lieser.

Maine’s Department of Conservation will acquire several primitive campsites in the area and water access sites within the easement area.

Other participants in the project include the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Land for Maine’s Future board, which provided $2.8 million toward its cost.

Further purchases in the waterway are planned next year.

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