Winding around mountains and through a dramatic gorge in western Maine, Cold Stream flows 14 miles from its source, Cold Stream Pond, to empty into the Kennebec River. Named for its particularly cold waters, the stream is known as an important place for brook trout to spawn in the fall and find cool refuge in late summer.

“It’s remarkable how many people I know who’ve been fishing there since they were kids — me being one of them,” Jeff Reardon, Maine brook trout project director for Trout Unlimited, said. “It’s a pretty special place.”

So special, in fact, that several organizations have been working for years to conserve the waterway and surrounding ponds, tributaries and forestland. Altogether, the Cold Stream Woods project would conserve more than 8,000 acres in Somerset County, including 3,000 acres of deer wintering habitat.

Trout Unlimited has partnered with federal and state agencies, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and The Trust for Public Land to purchase the property from its owner, Plum Creek. The Trust for Public Land has been awarded $6.5 million in federal funds and $1.5 million by the state’s Land for Maine’s Future program to make it possible.

Therein lies the problem.

Gov. Paul LePage has refused to release $11.5 million in voter-approved LMF bond funds for 36 conservation projects located throughout Maine — the Cold Stream Woods project prominently among them — unless the Legislature adopts his initiative to expand timber harvesting on public land. Last month , some $6.5 million of those bonds officially expired, muddying their future.

Now the future of LMF funding is poised to be a signature conflict of the upcoming Legislative session and a key test of whether lawmakers and LePage will find compromise on an issue that seemingly has had broad public support: funding land conservation efforts.

Several of the 36 projects have found alternative funding sources and are moving forward. But many, such as the Cold Stream Woods project, are at a standstill.

“I wish there were people around writing $1.5 million checks,” Reardon said. “But realistically … it took us five years to raise those two sources of money.”

‘Amazing places in jeopardy’

Since it was established in 1987, the Land for Maine’s Future program has protected more than 560,000 acres of conservation and recreation lands, 315,000 acres of commercial forest, 37 farms and two dozen working waterfronts.

The program has helped preserve parts of some of Maine’s most iconic wild places, such as Grand Lake Stream, Mount Kineo, Cutler Coast and Camden Hills. In six separate ballot questions since LMF was created, voters have never failed to support funding for the program.

“The voters have told us what they want, and we owe it to them to do all we can to bring these projects to fruition,” Democratic House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe said. “The governor’s refusal to release voter-approved bonds could mean lost opportunities for outdoorsmen and -women, tourism, farming, forestry and fishing in our state.”

The release of state bonds requires the governor’s signature, and LePage has said he will not release the fund unless the Legislature agrees to his plan to increase timber harvesting on public lands to fund a home heating program for low-income Mainers. A legislative panel recommended against that plan Monday.

“The governor’s stance has not changed with regard to LMF bonds,” LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett wrote in an email to the BDN. She reiterated the governor’s position that more funding is reserved for public lands than could be necessary.

“The governor believes it is better to spend this money to help the needy than to simply let the funds sit in this account,” Bennett said.

LePage has withheld the issuance of bonds before, on several occasions, to further his agenda, including during his first term in order to urge the Legislature to support his plan to repay the state’s Medicaid debt to hospitals.

But the governor also has taken special issue with LMF to the point he ordered an investigation of the program by the Maine Office of Policy and Management. Details of the investigation will be released in the coming weeks, according to Bennett.

In addition, at an event in Brunswick in June, LePage said conservation projects are driven by wealthy people who ask “poor people [to] pay for it.”

This statement has irked some Maine legislators.

“He’s said that this is preserving land for rich people, but I’d say the opposite is the case,” Democratic Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford said. “The rich people generally have every opportunity to buy and gate and post land, and those of us without those means are running up against those postings. I think [LePage] is really misguided there.”

“If it wasn’t for programs like LMF, I wouldn’t have a job, and my children wouldn’t have the recreational opportunities that they have,” said McCabe, executive director of the 320-acre Lake George Regional Park in Canaan, which was established in 1992 with the help of LMF funding.

“When you look at the [LMF funded] projects and what’s happening with this land, it’s actually creating public access,” he said. “I see the future of recreation here in Maine, and it’s going to be related to public access. All of the time access to amazing places in Maine are in jeopardy.”

Eight projects funded

In an unexpected move, LePage in October freed the Land for Maine’s Future board to allocate approximately $2.1 million it had from previous bonds to fund some of the 36 projects. At their November board meeting, the LMF board had decisions to make.

John Bott, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, told the BDN eight projects were decided to receive funding, based on their readiness and ability to be “accomplished efficiently.”

The eight are as follows:

Save Eagle Bluff in Clifton

Crooked River Forest in Otisfield and Harrison

Central Maine Sportsman’s Access Project in Emden, Burnham, Detroit, Cambridge and Ripley

Kennebec River Estuary Fawcett Parcel in Bowdoinham

Pleasant Bay Wildlife Management Area in Addison

Kimball Pond in New Sharon (PDF)

Winterwood Farm in Freeport

— A&R Enterprises working waterfront project

Save Eagle Bluff is a project to purchase a 165-acre parcel of land in Clifton that includes most of Eagle Bluff, which has long been a popular rock climbing, bouldering and hiking destination.

The project was initially awarded $61,000 in LMF funding. When that money wasn’t allocated as planned, the Clifton Climbers Alliance conducted additional fundraising to purchase the property in the fall of 2014.

“The LMF funds are now going to help with improvements on the property,” Ben Townsend of Clifton Climbers Alliance, the organization leading the Save Eagle Bluff project, said. “We had a kiosk event planned this past September that we had to cancel because we didn’t have the funding for it. We need to replace bulk anchors and hardware on the cliffs, and the [hiking] trails need help.”

Eyes on the State House

Conservation advocates are pinning hopes on legislative action this January to unlock the rest of the funding and perhaps revive the bonds that have expired for the remaining projects.

“We hold out hope that the Legislature will be able to solve the problem and get the money released,” Howard Lake, a director of the Kennebec Land Trust, said.

In 2014, the Kennebec Land Trust was awarded $337,500 in LMF funds to help purchase and conserve Howard Hill, the wooded backdrop of the State House in Augusta. Land trust officials raised the remaining funds to purchase the $1.2 million property.

“We’ve worked on this project for years, and we’ve gotten substantial private commitment from many donations, large and small,” Lake said. “Why would we suppose there’d be a problem with a program that has been around for so long?”

With LMF funds withheld, Kennebec Land Trust officials decided to take out a loan from Kennebec Savings Bank to meet the deadline to close on the Howard Hill property in October.

“We were so far into it we just really couldn’t give up on all of the work that everyone has done and the generosity that others have shown,” Lake said. “It just amazes us that this has gone on so long.”

Earlier this year, Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta proposed a bill, LD 1378, that would bar governors from withholding voter-approved bonds. It was passed but vetoed by Gov. LePage, and the Maine House of Representatives fell six votes short of overriding it.

After this, lawmakers approved an amended bill, LD 1454, authored by McCabe that would force LePage to release all LMF bonds. This January, LePage is expected to veto this bill. It will then bounce back to the Legislature, where it will need to be approved by the two-thirds of both the House and Senate to be passed into law.

A 275-member organization called the Land for Maine’s Future Coalition is also calling on LMF supporters to State House rally on Jan. 12, the day vetoes will be considered.

Tom Abello of The Nature Conservancy, a member of the Land for Maine’s Future Coalition, said this conflict has had some a silver lining.

“It’s really brought a lot of people out the woodwork and has raised public awareness of the [LMF] program, why it succeeds and how it benefits the community,” he said. “I think public support for LMF has gone through the roof.”

Meanwhile, back at Cold Stream, the coalition of partners seeking to conserve the “special place” is exercising an angler’s patience. Along with the funding delay, the landowner — Plum Creek — will be sold in 2016 to another company, Weyerhaeuser Co., which raises more questions about the Cold Stream deal’s future.

A spokeswoman for Plum Creek told the BDN that until the company’s sale is is final, it would be “premature” to comment on the Cold Stream project’s prospects.

Reardon, for his part, remains optimistic.

“Frankly, we’re hopeful that there will be some action on the legislative front this winter,” he said. “We will certainly work with our partners to find other sources of funding if LMF goes away completely, but this is exactly the type of project we think LMF was made for.”

BDN political writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...