Commentary: Land trusts, sportsmen work to revitalize Land for Maine’s Future

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Headlines frequently highlight ideological divisions that too often plague our public policy debates, but “State budget includes huge boost for land preservation” (July 12) and “Land for Maine’s Future puts focus on community recreation” (July 14) are headlines that illustrate a different path. This path, blazed by Maine land trusts and sportsmen who joined forces a decade ago for conservation goals that benefit all Mainers, led to the revitalization of Land for Maine’s Future and enactment of landmark white-tailed deer legislation in 2021.

While land trusts and sportsmen do not always see eye to eye, working together in support of LMF has been natural. Established in 1987, this popular conservation program has always invited diverse interests to head outdoors. As a result, hunters, hikers, snowmobilers, kayakers, birdwatchers, anglers and others are drawn to LMF properties throughout the year. The program has also supported working farms, forests, and waterfronts across the state.

To date, LMF has secured public access to more than 600,000 acres, offering opportunities for the great variety of traditional outdoor recreational activities Maine families enjoy. This has never been more apparent than during the past year, as visitors descended upon public lands and land trust preserves in record numbers.

The recent uptick in outdoor recreation came on the heels of a report issued by a Land Conservation Task Force that our two organizations co-chaired in 2018. This diverse 20-person group represented public health, sportsmen and women, conservationists, forest products, economic development, agriculture, working waterfront and other constituencies.

After spending a year listening to experts and gathering public feedback, the task force developed a blueprint outlining ways to care for existing public lands, create opportunities to connect people with outdoor places, protect critical natural resources and expand land conservation statewide. When groups as diverse as ours find common ground, real and lasting progress is possible.

It was a pleasure this year to work with legislative leaders from both parties, Gov. Mills and many others to effect policy changes that will benefit Maine people for many years to come. Specifically, for the first time in nearly a decade, the state will be funding LMF, building on a 34-year track record of success with two important changes.

In combination with passage of L.D. 404, an Act to Preserve Deer Habitat, LMF will empower the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s to restore healthy deer populations to northern, eastern and western Maine. This is an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen cultural traditions and expand economic growth to communities looking to broaden job opportunities.

One might wonder why preserving deer yards would be a priority when deer are plentiful in southern Maine. Unfortunately, in northern regions older growth forests capable of sustaining deer through the winter have declined from 12 percent of the landscape to just 3 percent and the deer population has crashed to a shadow of what it once was. As a bonus, protecting this habitat benefits nesting songbirds and dozens of other important non-game wildlife species.

Speaking of southern Maine, while we are blessed to have spectacular wild places to visit a few hours from our population centers, it is equally important to have outdoor spaces within a half-hour drive from home. That is why this year’s legislation strategically directs LMF to place greater emphasis on community conservation and increasing access for outdoor recreation closer to where people live, work and raise their families.

Thanks to the leadership of our elected policymakers, Maine people have made a bold and emphatic statement that the state’s special places deserve to be preserved and managed for the future. All involved in this effort have set LMF on a new course by securing a direct budget appropriation at an unprecedented level. The next generation is unlikely to remember the details of this historic effort, but we know they would say “thank you” no matter how they choose to explore Maine’s great outdoors.

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