BELFAST, Maine — Over the past 25 years, millions of Maine taxpayer dollars have been used to conserve more than half a million acres in the Pine Tree State through the state-run Land for Maine’s Future program.

The question of whether public money should be used to purchase or otherwise protect often privately-owned parcels of forest, farms and the waterfront is a big one. And in an era of tight budgets and often-polarizing debate about private enterprise versus the role of the state, the issue can get heated — especially as the program has shifted its sights from conserving acres of forested wilderness to protecting places such as working farms and Maine’s working waterfront.

“There’s more benefit to the public than property taxes, in many cases,” William Vail of Saco, the new chairman of the Land for Maine’s Future board, said last week. “The whole notion of public access — outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing and recreational activities that are provided on these public lands in many, many, many cases clearly outweigh the lost property tax revenue.”

But some, including Ralph Turner of Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport, disagree with some of the ways that he believes the land conservation program has negatively affected his own family’s livelihood on their privately-owned farm.

“I think Land for Maine’s Future, like every other program, can be used correctly and incorrectly,” he said. “In the best circumstance, it can absolutely help family farms. In the worst circumstance, it can be used to destabilize markets and hurt family farms.”

Declining public funds for conservation

Since January 2011, the program, which is run through the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, has helped to conserve 30,000 acres in 12 counties through the funding of 38 projects. Over the two-year period, these projects cost Mainers approximately $5.6 million, which is a third of the $18 million valuation of the lands protected. That’s because the program’s policy requires proposed projects to include a match equal to at least half of the total expenses. The state’s money is used as leverage for other funding sources, which can include the 90 land trusts which dot the state.

The pieces of land which were acquired and protected in these two years ranged from a .77-acre parcel in Jonesport which aims to support the mussel harvest to the 21,800-acre West Grand Lake Forest project, also in Washington County. In that enormous project, a conservation easement held by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry will protect more than 17 miles of lake frontage, 3,000 acres of wetlands and working landscapes that support local sporting camps and timber harvesting.

“In many of these acquisitions, forest management still continues on as part of the easements,” Vail said.

According to the official, who was commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife when Land for Maine’s Future was created back in 1987, there have been some seismic shifts in recent decades in the approach to conservation.

“Public funding for conservation is declining,” he said. “Whether it’s the federal government or the state government — the money just isn’t there the way it was 25 years ago. It may never be again.”

This decline in cash has led to a growing interest in conservation easements to protect property rather than outright acquisition, which Vail said is being seen in the ranches in the Western United States and farms in the East.

In Maine, the shift is notable. The early days after voters established the program in 1987 were flush with cash, with funding of $35 million set aside to purchase lands of “statewide importance.” Those first purchases included Mount Kineo on Moosehead Lake and other large tracts of undeveloped forestland.

Voters approved another $50 million bond in 1999 to support an expanded program, and a $12 million bond approved in 2005 created the Working Waterfront Protection Pilot program. But the most recent funding seems somewhat in limbo, after Gov. Paul LePage last fall delayed until 2014 selling a $7 million bond that voters approved in 2010. A $2 million bond authorized last November also hasn’t been sold yet, Vail said.

As the bonds have been getting smaller in recent years, the mandate of Land for Maine’s Future likewise has been getting more focused, with an emphasis on protecting the working waterfront, working farmland, and public access to lakes, rivers and ocean coastline.

“In a lot of communities, we’ve traded away the future of the working waterfront for condos. It’s happening more and more, and that’s why that language is in there,” Vail said. “Also, some of these working farms are in areas of the state where development pressures are very intense.”

Destabilizing the market

That’s the case in the Freeport area, where Turner and his family have been growing vegetables on their acres since 1984. He said that where he is, land trusts and investment holding companies are competing to purchase properties with possibly negative outcomes for people like him.

“In my opinion, in the not-too-distant future, family farms will not be able to exist in my part of the state,” he said. “When I want something, I have to sell vegetables. Whether it’s land, or a tractor, or whatever, I have to sell vegetables. I can’t just write a check or do a fundraiser. The whole face of what a farm is is being changed by this pressure in my part of the state.”

Funds from Land for Maine’s Future helped the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust conserve a farm close to Turner’s Laughing Stock Farm, and, he believes, changed the market unfairly for small family farmers.

“They can acquire property with no equity, no sweat, no nothing,” he said. “When they acquire those properties and then install a tenant to operate a commercial farm, they destabilize markets, because they’re competing against me, who has to pay taxes, and property taxes, and sell vegetables to buy equipment or land. When land trusts decide to get in the business of farming, they’re operating at a competitive disadvantage over us. The whole system just isn’t fair.”

John Piotti of the Maine Farmland Trust, a Belfast-based nonprofit agency that seeks to strengthen farming in Maine, said he understands Turner’s concerns. His agency tries “really hard to not artificially skew the market,” he said recently.

But in the quarter-century of Land for Maine’s Future’s existence, the program has protected just a few thousand acres of farmland, primarily through getting easements placed on it which limit what farmers can do with the land. According to Piotti, there are 1.3 million acres in Maine currently being farmed, and funds from the conservation program have been used to protect a tiny amount of those.

“Land for Maine’s Future is a good program. For some farmers, it’s the only tool that works,” he said. “There haven’t been a billion deals, but almost every deal is a land protection deal that would not have happened without state money.”

Tom Settlemire of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust is proud and excited by his nonprofit’s work to conserve land, including farmland, from the specter of development.

“There’s a voice for development, strong and hard,” he said. “If conservationists don’t look at the land, there’s no voice for that. Land for Maine’s Future dollars are very important. They allow us to be in competition. … The land trust sees ourselves as the grease in the wheel to make things happen, to allow our state to become more sustainable.”