NORWAY — The directors of two local land trusts are joining the chorus of voices asking the governor to disburse voter-approved funds designated for conservation projects. 

Lee Dassler, executive director of Western Foothills Land Trust, said Wednesday afternoon that withholding the funding jeopardizes a project four years in the making. That project would protect nearly 800 acres within the Crooked River watershed in Harrison and Otisfield.

The Crooked River flows through Oxford and Cumberland counties on its way to Sebago Lake, Portland’s drinking water source, providing nearly 40 percent of in-flowing water and one of a few breeding sites for indigenous salmon. 

Dassler’s comments come a day after the Portland Press Herald reported Tuesday that Gov. Paul LePage’s administration intends to withhold $11.4 million in bonds from Land for Maine’s Future program to leverage lawmakers for his plan to expand timber harvesting on state lands.

“This is no way for Maine to do business,” Dassler said. “Conservation is business also: we hire surveyors, land stewards and people to harvest timber from plots. It creates jobs,” she said. 

This past summer, the Land Trust, in conjunction with Loon Echo Land Trust in Bridgton, was awarded $400,000 from the Land for Maine’s Future program to move forward with the project. The promise of those funds precipitated other groups to pledge money and by December, the trusts had cobbled together the $1.132 million needed to purchase the land. 

“It’s upsetting to us; we’ve spent $50,000 already on required surveys and legal work after receiving the state’s pledge of a grant award,” Carrie Walia, executive director of Loon Echo Land Trust, said. 

Without the funding, the project, like dozens around the state, may be jeopardy. 

LePage spokesperson Peter Steele said the governor supports some projects and is reviewing projects already approved to understand the program’s finances.

“Several of the organizations that are now demanding Land for Maine’s Future funding opposed providing Mainers with money to keep their homes warm in the cold winter months,” Steele said in a statement. “The state already has 800,000 acres of public land, but Mainers need help upgrading to more energy-efficient systems that would make it much more affordable to heat their homes,” he said.

To that end, Steele said the governor is proposing using $5 million from the annual timber harvest on public lands to drive down heating costs, increasing logging from 141,500 cords to 180,000 cords. 

The purchase and sale agreement with landowners expires at the end of March, though Dassler said she is trying to negotiate an extension.

Since 1987, the Land for Maine’s Future program has funded $9.1 million to over 30 projects and 50,000 acres of land. Voter-approved bonds finance the program, which stipulates the protected land provides access to the public for recreational activities. 

The Crooked River Project would set aside the land for public use, including hiking, fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, kayaking and horseback riding. The area remains largely undeveloped, and to provide better access, Dassler said efforts are underway to establish parking lots near several of the sites to provide better access to the public.

“We want to complete this project as it could be a a great recreational opportunity along the river,” Walia said. 

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