AUGUSTA, Maine — Bucking his pattern of opposing taxpayer-funded conservation projects, Gov. Paul LePage is backing a proposal that could clinch a $5.7 million easement on property that includes a major maple forest in Somerset County.

The Big Six Forest is widely seen as worth protecting, and LePage’s early support is perfunctory, yet notable in part because of the governor’s past criticism of the Land for Maine’s Future program and past insinuations of corruption. Big Six’s owner is a LePage donor.

It could also spark a wider policy debate: While LePage’s office couched support for the project as consistent with his jobs-minded approach, a land trust official said it shows how the governor has favored rural conservation over more accessible projects near population centers.

The 23,600-acre property contains the head of the St. John River along the Quebec border and may have America’s biggest sugarbush with 340,000 taps that in 2013 yielded 24 percent of Maine’s maple sugar production and 3.4 percent of the national output, according to documents filed with the state in 2014.

It’s owned by Paul Fortin, a Madison businessman who would get roughly $5.7 million for a conservation easement if The Trust for Public Land can finish a slightly larger fundraising effort, according to JT Horn, a project manager for the conservation group.

The effort also won $3.5 million in 2014 as the last project that LePage allowed to be submitted to the federal Forest Legacy program. That money can make up no more than 75 percent of total project funds, so Land for Maine’s Future often must close gaps as it has done for some past projects.

Horn said Big Six plans to ask for funding under Land for Maine’s Future, whose board is now considering whether to authorize up to $4.25 million in bond money left from statewide elections in 2010 and 2012 to projects later this year. Fortin said they’re considering other funding methods, too, such as carbon credits.

The proposed easement would preserve the sugarbush, mandate sound forestry and forever open the property to recreational activities, including hunting, fishing and snowmobiling.

“The maple industry and really securing that future for the maple industry in Maine is the headline” for Horn’s group, he said, “and the recreational values are a nice add-on.”

‘It’s the right thing to do for the state’

Fortin’s past support for LePage’s political causes has raised eyebrows. He gave $20,000 to the governor’s political action committee last year and made $6,000 in personal and business contributions to LePage’s 2014 re-election campaign.

But the story of this property is more complicated: LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said in an email that it “remained consistent in his support for projects that promote working waterfronts and forests, which create good-paying jobs for Mainers.”

Fortin said he often donates to conservative and community causes and that it wasn’t about currying favor.

A state task force on the maple industry said in 2011 that preserving Big Six was a priority. Afterward, Fortin said LePage administration officials heard he might log the land amid high pulp prices in 2012.

He didn’t disclose a figure but said he forfeited such a windfall that “you might be ashamed of me as a businessman” for not cutting the trees. That started the easement push.

“Bottom line: It’s the right thing to do for the state,” Fortin said. “It would have been a shame to cut them.”

There are other pressures: Big Six borders the Chaudiere-Appalaches region of Quebec that’s noted for hunting, and Fortin has said he often gets unsolicited offers for camp lots.

In 2014, a real estate agent in Quebec City — less than 80 miles away — told the state that because such lots in Quebec are in short supply, Big Six lots would sell “at an astonishing rate” to Canadians. The parcel is easier to access from Quebec than most of Maine because of a border crossing 2 miles away at Sainte-Aurelie.

History of conflict

LePage has had a difficult relationship with Land for Maine’s Future: He spent much of 2015 withholding $11.5 million in voter-approved bonds and has blamed land trusts for inflating property taxes by making land tax-exempt.

Money has flowed to certain projects since then — including the Cold Stream Forest in Somerset County. However, other projects didn’t get money.

LePage appointees on the board slashed funding for Howard Hill, a project to preserve the forest backdrop to the Maine State House in Augusta after a dispute over an appraisal. One member resigned in protest.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who fought LePage on bond issuance, is the law partner of Sumner Lipman, who owned Howard Hill. The governor made comments in 2015 that many interpreted as wrongly insinuating that Katz would benefit from that deal, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Alan Stearns, executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust, who had a project held up in the dispute, said the Big Six project is worthy, but the “pipeline for state funding” has become “smaller and more volatile” under LePage.

“I wish there were as much support for southern Maine open space and recreation projects as there are for remote forestland,” he said.

If the Land for Maine’s Future board chooses to issue money later this year, applicants would have to meet the board’s criteria to get awards. The board is now developing criteria — or the “workbook” — that would guide them in scoring those projects.

Once bids come in, LePage has no official influence on project selection. But he has appointed five board members and the three other spots are held by his department commissioners — Walter Whitcomb of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; Chandler Woodcock of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife; and Patrick Keliher of Marine Resources.

John Bott, a spokesman for Whitcomb’s department, said in emails that it backs the project in a normal “sponsorship role” in which staff “work with applicants to ensure that all relevant criteria are met and all required component pieces are included” in an application.

Whitcomb declined an interview request through Bott, who said commissioners don’t typically advocate for projects because they’re on the board. Bott also said “discussion of this and other potential applications is premature until all the projects and applicants are known.”

But Horn has a theory on why LePage likes the project: It “ties back to a forest products industry, to jobs, to people that are reliant on the North Woods for their business.”

“We might have a broader view of conservation, but if we have a project that fits with the governor’s priorities, we’re happy to take whatever political support we can get,” he said.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...