The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund made possible the preservation of the Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Milford, Maine. Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

An important land conservation program, which has been especially beneficial to Maine, is set to run out of money at the end of the month, if Congress does not pass legislation to reauthorize and fund it. At the same time, the next administration and Legislature must ensure Maine is a ready and willing partner in conservation work.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded with revenue from offshore drilling, has supported 42,000 projects across the country ranging from small city parks to preserving thousands of acres of working forestland. It has funded projects in every state. Without a renewal from Congress, the program’s authorization expires on Sept. 30, leaving some projects in limbo, although current Maine projects will be funded with accumulated funds already on hand.

LWCF, which began in 1964, has funded hundreds of projects in Maine, most of them small. Money from the program has helped build parks and recreational facilities, including ball fields, swimming pools and tennis courts, in communities across the state. It has also helped pay for dozens of boat launches and small public beaches.

Because Maine has so much working forestland, it has the most land protected through the Forest Legacy program, a subset of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Maine has received more than $76 million in federal funding from the program since 1990, protecting nearly 740,000 acres of land through conservation easements and purchases.

Gov. Paul LePage, an outspoken critic of land conservation, has slowed down the pipeline of Forest Legacy projects in Maine. For several years, the state did not submit new projects for this funding, despite the state’s past success. A state committee to review conservation projects for potential Forest Legacy funding has been largely dormant, although it set to reconvene next month.

This is hopeful news as the next administration must recommit to land conservation, on both a small and large scale.

The most recent Maine project to receive Forest Legacy funding is Big Six, a forest preservation project in northwestern Maine that aimed to help protect a major maple syrup producing area. The project, ranked as the number six priority in the country by the Forest Legacy Program, was approved for $3.8 million in funding in 2016. However, the Land for Maine’s Future Program, which LePage has starved of funds, declined to contribute $1.2 million to the project, even though the governor backed it.

This highlights the need for a transparent, stable and functional partnership between federal and state conservation programs. Land preservation projects typically take years to complete and involve detailed appraisals, negotiations and fundraising as money typically comes from federal, state and private entities. If any of the partners are not fully committed or rules and funding streams change, projects are put in jeopardy.

At the federal level, fully funding LWCF should be a priority. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King recently joined a dozen of their colleagues in urging support for the LWCF.

“The LWCF is one of the country’s best conservation programs, preserving public lands and ensuring access to outdoor recreation in rural and urban areas,” the senators wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles Schumer. “For the last half century, it has protected lands, historic sites, national parks, wilderness areas, and urban parks in every state.”

“For the economy, sportsmen, veterans, wildlife, and our kids and grandkids, we must permanently reauthorize LWCF,” they added.

Congress should do its part to sustain this important funding source.

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