GRAFTON TOWNSHIP – Barring any unforeseen complications, state conservation officials could, by December, buy and protect nearly 3,700 acres of the Mahoosuc Range in the Grafton Notch area.

Mahoosuc project manager Sam Hodder of The Trust for Public Lands said Friday that the 3,688 acres, which largely drape the shoulders of Old Speck and Sunday River Whitecap mountains, cost an estimated $3 million.

The actual price depends on an appraisal, which is nearing completion, Hodder said.

To buy it, $2 million is anticipated from the Forest Legacy Program through the Bush administration’s fiscal 2007 budget.

The Grafton tract has been ranked as the nation’s No. 1 Forest Legacy Program priority.

Additionally, pending approval, $660,000 will be provided by the Land for Maine’s Future program.

“We’re still short, obviously, but, we’re working with The Trust for Public Lands to close the gap by reaching out to other funding sources,” Maine Department of Conservation Deputy Director Ralph Knoll said Friday in Augusta.

The department has a purchase and sale option agreement with Bayroot LLC.

Wagner Forest Management Ltd. of Lyme, N.H., Bayroot’s land agent, offered the parcel to the state after Bayroot bought it about two years ago from MeadWestvaco Corp.

On May 10, the U.S. House Appropriation Committee significantly reduced money for the legacy program in its Interior Appropriations bill, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said Friday.

The Senate Appropriation Committee, however, on June 29, passed its own bill by the same name, keeping the Grafton funding intact.

“That’s a very, very good thing,” Knoll said.

Ferrier said Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins know that acquiring the Grafton tract “is critical to Maine, and will continue to fight for it.”

Now, the full Senate must vote on its Appropriation Committee’s bill. Once that passes, the House and Senate bills are reconciled into one bill, on which both chambers vote, before it can be sent to the president for his signature, Ferrier said.

“We’re at the very beginning of the process, but, we are cautiously optimistic that they’ll keep this funding in,” she added.

Knoll said he’s “pretty confident, in spite of land prices” that the remaining money will be found to close the deal by year’s end.

“Land in Maine has gone up substantially since before we started to buy it, but, (the Mahoosuc parcel) is worth what its worth,” he said.

The tract includes a section of the famed Georgia-to-Maine Appalachian Trail, and about four miles of the western section of the Grafton Loop Trail.

“It’s right at the heart of Grafton Notch State Park,” Hodder said.

Eighty percent of the parcel borders state land. Once bought, the land would likely be taken in by the Bureau of Parks and Lands and managed by the Department of Conservation.

It would be designated as public reserve lands, and, Hodder said, since Forest Legacy dollars will help buy it, the property must be managed as a working forest landscape.

“To have an opportunity to acquire property with this scenic and recreational quality, it’s a chance we may not get again.

“A lot of development is happening in the region, and, as these regions grow and develop, it’s critical to protect that which is making it important to developers and other people,” Hodder said.

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