Commissioner backs away from blast at Land for Maine’s Future

The headline was troubling: “Whitcomb Trying to Curb Favoritism, Pricey Sales in Land for Maine’s Future Program.”

On vacation in Lubec in late-August, I picked up a copy of The Downeast Coastal Press when that front-page headline caught my eye. Walt Whitcomb, the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, a guy I have known for decades to be very cautious in his public remarks, blasted the Land for Maine’s Future Program, using some shocking words and making even more shocking charges.

Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. Here’s a bit of the news story, with Whitcomb’s words in quotes:

Whitcomb questioned whether the Land for Maine’s Future program, which provides state matching funds as set aside for land preservation purposes, were being conducted aboveboard. “LMF is the law. People do vote for it. Now quite a few of us sit on the LMF Board. It’s statutory that I do. The governor has put some people on there from the public that at least want to make it an honest purchase,” said Whitcomb. “There are some concerns that there were favorites in that (LMF selection) process, and that there were also high appraisal values,” he said.

“I sat in on some pretty intense meetings where people questioned the value of some of those properties, so the governor put two appraisers on (the LMF board). And that’s good, because we aren’t buying that garbage.” Whitcomb said that emphasizing paying fair market value for properties was a “subtle shift” in the way LMF business had previously been conducted…

“We’re trying to ensure that it’s an honest transaction. We’re trying to discuss openly about how people buy and resell, how these (LMF) priorities got established. Frankly, I can’t say we’ve stopped the train yet.”

Yikes! They haven’t stopped the LMF train yet? They aren’t buying any more garbage? The program played favorites? And paid too much?

Today, I spent an hour with Commissioner Whitcomb to get a better understanding of just what he meant by all of that surprising rhetoric. I appreciated his willingness to sit for my questions and to explain his remarks. Here’s what Walt had to say today.

He was speaking to the Washington County Republican Committee, dominated by the tea party, and its members were giving him a rough time, especially over the Governor’s veto of a bill to allow the sale of raw milk without state permits or oversight. “We spent more time on raw milk than we did any other issues,” he reported.

Clearly, the hostility in the audience had an impact on the way the usually cautious Whitcomb responded. He regrets some of the words he used. “I have not seen anything approaching dishonesty,” in the LMF program, he told me. “I shouldn’t have used the word garbage…. I don’t think I said the LMF program was not being conducted above board.”

So, thankful to hear all of that, I asked what he did mean, and where does he see the LMF program going. He began by defending the Governor against complaints that he refused to sell the LMF bonds approved by voters and needed to complete LMF purchases. “There was plenty of money,” he said, and all of the projects moved forward successfully. “The kind of change we’ve tried to achieve are intended to make the money as effective as it can be,” he concluded.

Now, here is where I am going to tell you what I heard Walt say. These are not his words, they are mine.

He feels the process has favored large nonprofits, the groups that have the staff expertise and money to successfully move through a complex process and finish at the top. He agreed with me that the process has been competitive. I know that it has been very competitive because I served for many years on the Advisory Committee for the Forest Legacy federal program that has funded many key Maine conservation purchases.

He has initiated a vigorous examination of LMF’s scoring system and instructions, some of which he said conflicted. His staff, along with LMF Board members, are working on this. He noted the LMF process has been in place for 25 years and it’s time for an update. He is paying especially close attention to the appraisal process, with the help of the two LMF Board members who are professional land appraisers. They hope to initiate a stricter appraisal process.  He thinks that, sometimes, we bought property and easements at peak prices, when the real estate market was strong, but he could offer no specific examples of projects for which we paid too high a price.

We did talk about one project – an easement on riverfront property – that I had actually questioned myself. Neither of us thought it was an important or critical conservation purchase.

Walt knows that the LMF program is popular and permanent. “The challenge is getting it to work as the people originally wanted,” he said. He also feels it is still important to “coax private landowners to keep their land open.” I certainly agreed with him on that.

We had an interesting discussion of the requirement that LMF purchases have “statewide value.” That was the original requirement, and it’s been watered down over the years to allow purchases of value in a specific region, if not statewide. Walt thinks the statewide option may be eliminated. I’ve felt for a long time that more conservation purchases should have been, and should be, made in central and southern Maine, where the lands are more accessible to Maine people. That is especially important to sportsmen, because much of our hunting these days is done in southern Maine, and we have become more dependent on public land as more private land was posted.

We talked about my long-time concern that all of our conservation programs are reactive, and I used the boating access program as an example. Rather than work from a list of top priority sites where we need public access to the water, we generally purchase access where and when it becomes available. Land and easement purchases operate in the same way. Maine has no prioritized list of the places most important to place in public ownership.

Before I left, I told Walt how much I appreciated his recognition of the impact of climate change, expressed in his Washington County speech. It couldn’t have been easy to do that to an audience of tea party naysayers!

And I left his office feeling more comfortable with his thinking and positions on land conservation. Certainly, his remarks that night were unfortunate and unfair. As a person who has participated actively in the land conservation effort, from appearances in LMF TV ads to support for specific projects, I am very proud of what has been achieved for the people of Maine.

With conservation programs under fire in Washington D.C. and Maine, and funding sources threatened, it’s time for all of us to step up and remind political and government officials – the people who work for us – of how important these programs and to us. I’m going to count Commissioner Whitcomb, for now, as a man who understands this.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.