The Maine Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee has released its report on conservation lands owned by nonprofit organizations, which it was authorized to undertake by a provision in the General Fund Biennial Budget for 2018 and 2019.
The report gives high marks to our land trust community and includes some interesting recommendations.
I was particularly intrigued by this recommendation: The ACF Committee also recommends that the Legislature review the four current-use tax programs and how each program treats the issue of public access. The ACF Committee believes that a certain level of public access to land should be a requirement in order for a property owner to be eligible for a reduced rate of property tax.
One of those current-use tax programs allows forest landowners a significant property tax break, without requiring owners to let us enjoy their property. For example, more than 5,000 acres in my town of Mount Vernon are in the Tree Growth program, but we get no legal access to that property in return for giving those landowners a nice tax break.
I really appreciated this finding in the report: Land trust organizations play an important role in the State because only 6.5% of land in Maine is public land. Maine is ranked 38th in the nation for the amount of land in public ownership, and has the lowest amount of land in public ownership on the east coast. This has resulted in a very active land trust community that allows access to lands that might otherwise not be accessible to the public for hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and other recreational activities. Recreational opportunities provided by land trust organizations contribute to Maine’s tourism economy. Land trusts protect natural resources that are integral to the State’s natural resource-based economy. Land trusts benefit local communities throughout the State in a multitude of ways, from education programs for school children to guided walks for the elderly. For these reasons and more, the ACF Committee finds that nonprofit conservation organizations provide a great value to the residents of Maine.
All true. And this finding is important too: of the roughly 2.5 million acres of land conserved by nonprofit conservation organizations, 94.5% are on the tax rolls. Approximately 1.9 million acres are in private ownership with conservation easements and 460,000 acres in fee ownership by land conservation organizations.
We’re not just talking about forestland. Here’s something else from the report: Maine nonprofit conservation organizations have conserved more than 36,000 acres of working farmland, which includes privately-owned farms protected with conservation easements and properties owned in fee by land trusts. These working farmlands support numerous farmers and agriculture-related enterprises.
As someone who has joyed the great Maine outdoors his entire life, I recognized the importance of this information: According to the 2017 MCHT report, land trusts provide: 1,260 miles of hiking/walking trails; 275 miles of mountain biking trails; 570 miles of snowmobile trails; 345 miles of ATV trails; 203 boat launch sites; 62 coastal and 141 freshwater; 210 beaches/swimming areas; and approximately 2.3 million acres of land open for hunting, which represents 90% of total acres conserved by land trusts via fee ownership or conservation easement.
The legislative report also noted: At the first study meeting, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM) spoke in support of the land trust community and land trusts’ efforts to conserve deer wintering areas, brook trout spawning grounds and other critical wildlife habitat. SAM recognizes that these efforts are important factors for maintaining and improving opportunities for hunters and anglers throughout the State.
Not every Maine town is enthusiastic about land trusts, as the report notes: Jim Clark, Tax Assessor’s Agent, Town of Lubec also shared his concerns about land trusts buying property for conservation purposes. Mr. Clark noted that, in Downeast Maine, the average age for residents is 67 years old and the average annual income is approximately $26,000. According to Mr. Clark, residents are struggling and tax revenues are getting “lifted out” by land trust organizations. Mr. Clark feels that land trust organizations are taking away income from the town that could be generated from taxes. Mr. Clark acknowledges that every community is different; what works in one community might not work in another.
My Mom grew up in Lubec, and my great grandfather was the keeper at the West Quoddy Lighthouse there for 32 years. My Lubec heritage is very important to me. But I must disagree with Jim Clark. The conservation lands, including 500 acres at West Quoddy, are wonderful. We enjoy many ocean-side hikes there.
The problem has nothing to do with land trusts and conservation lands. Governor LePage’s misguided and inaccurate attacks on Maine’s land trusts may be an attempt to divert us from how much he has hurt local government and caused significant increases in our property taxes.
The Governor has tried for years to eliminate revenue sharing, which gives towns a small portion of the state’s income tax revenue. He hasn’t succeeded, but he has managed to reduce payments to municipalities by $602 million.
I probably don’t have to tell you how much he has punished property taxpayers with his cuts to state funding for our schools. With the legislature’s support, he’s cut state school funding by $500 million. And despite the fact that we voted many years ago, in a statewide referendum, to have the state fund 55% of our school costs, the state is $1.3 billion short of that goal.
Look in the mirror, Governor LePage, and you will see the real problem. It is, most definitely, not our land trusts and wonderful conservation lands.
You can read the entire report here: