AUGUSTA, Maine — If Central Maine Power can salvage its planned hydropower corridor through western Maine, it may have a new partner to thank: Yale University.
Yale’s part in the $1 billion corridor project is relatively small. One of its companies granted the Maine utility with an easement that would allow the route to bypass Beattie Pond, a fishery in Franklin County whose inclusion led a state panel to deadlock on permitting in September.
The Ivy League institution’s endowment is one of Maine’s largest landowners through companies it has run in a low-key way since the early 2000s. It was a major player in a similar project that was slated for New Hampshire and caused a backlash from campus activists.
Central Maine Power officials have said the deal would increase the project’s cost by $950,000, though parts of it are opaque, as Yale’s operations here have always been. Here’s what we know.
Yale is one of the biggest landowners in Maine, but it has tried to be a mostly anonymous operator in the woods. Through two companies — Bayroot LLC and Typhoon LLC — Yale’s endowment is among the biggest landowners in Maine, owning more than 521,000 acres in the Unorganized Territory, according to 2019 data from Maine Revenue Services. The companies are managed by Wagner Forest Management of New Hampshire.
Those companies were formed to manage large-scale land purchases early in the 2000s. It was part of a trend that began in the 1980s in the timber industry in which investment companies took over timberland that had long been owned and managed by paper companies.
Bayroot’s land, which spans the Maine-New Hampshire border, came from the former operator of the Rumford mill. Typhoon bought its land in Downeast Maine from Georgia-Pacific, the paper giant that once ran mills in Baileyville and Old Town.
Those companies were predated by Yankee Forest, which applied in 2001 for a publicly funded conservation easement on land around Moosehead Lake and the West Branch of the Penobscot River. Yale’s link to the property — which wasn’t known to the state until after the application — led to criticism. The easement went through and the land switched owners.
A spokeswoman said Yale doesn’t discuss its investments, though it issued a 2017 statement saying the endowment typically invests with managers through “partnership arrangements that limit the investors’ ability to control decisions from both a legal and best practices perspective.”
Bayroot paid a $35,000 penalty to the state for clearcuts in Franklin County, but the university and Wagner have said the forestland is managed under sustainability standards from two national groups that make it subject to independent inspections.
The Maine investments are just a sliver of Yale’s massive endowment, providing a stable and countercyclical place to store money. Yale’s endowment was valued at $29.4 billion last year. It’s managed David Swensen, the university’s highest-paid employee and a giant in the institutional investment world. Roughly $2 billion of that is invested in natural resources and the Maine operations are just a small part of that.
Tax records show the assets of Typhoon and Bayroot were valued at $84 million in 2018, falling from $108 million in 2014, while income rose from $5.1 million to $10.7 million. Yale disclosed that it owned 99 percent of Bayroot and 91 percent of Typhoon.
Wagner has long said it doesn’t discuss clients and didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Peter Triandafillou, the vice president of woodlands for Huber Resources Corp., a Wagner competitor with an Old Town office, said New England timberland is a low-risk investment for funds with a long time horizon.
Triandafillou said while it doesn’t generate the returns of forestland in the Pacific Northwest, it is less risky and can typically generate annual returns of up to 8 percent that are countercyclical, meaning value often moves in opposition to the direction of the overall economy.
Yale’s involvement in a similar New Hampshire project led to criticism on its campus. It has only been isolated in Maine so far. Bayroot was a larger player in the Northern Pass, a 192-mile corridor from Quebec through New Hampshire that was Massachusetts’ first choice to fulfill a massive clean-power request for the New England grid.
It leased a 24-mile stretch of land in Coos County to the company that would have built the corridor, leading to a 2017 teach-in at the Connecticut university, according to the Yale Daily News. Activists asked the investment office to withdraw from the project, though Yale said it had no ability to under the terms of their arrangement with Wagner.
The Northern Pass failed to win key state permits, leading Massachusetts to turn to the Central Maine Power-led New England Clean Energy Connect, which would run for 145 miles from Quebec to Lewiston through western Maine if it wins permitting from state regulators.
According to the Portland Press Herald, CMP told regulators that it had been trying to purchase the Bayroot land to route the corridor around Beattie Pond, but the company was asking 50 times market value. The utility bought it in August. In a statement, CMP said it paid market rate.
It comes as opponents of the corridor look to take it to a referendum vote in 2020. They seem to have a potent political case. A poll commissioned by an opposing group in March found 65 percent of Mainers oppose it, with 88 percent opposition in Franklin County.
State Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, a Yale Law School graduate, wrote to the university’s president last month, saying its role in the unpopular corridor will “undoubtedly bring criticism” on the university.
Yale President Peter Salovey wrote back to Cooper, saying the university has “no direct ownership of land in Maine,” but only “indirect property interests” managed by Wagner. Cooper responded by saying Yale “should not use management arrangements to deflect its social responsibilities.”
That criticism hasn’t come in large quantities yet, but Yale’s history in Maine indicates that it’ll try to remain under the radar even if it does.