Penobscot Bay is visible to the west from Wallamatogus Mountain in the town of Penobscot in this June 2021 photo. Blue Hill Heritage Trust is looking to raise $1.2 million to acquire the 336-acre property from The Conservation Fund. Credit: Courtesy of Chrissy Allen

Conservationists say the red-hot real estate market that started heating up at the onset of the pandemic has made it harder to preserve land in Maine.

Many land trusts in Maine operate under strict standards crafted by the Land Trust Alliance, a national organization that provides accreditation for land conservation groups across the country. The standards dictate that trusts get independent appraisals for properties and only pay for the land’s actual value.

The rules ensure prudent spending of donor’s money and prevent trusts from entering bidding wars on properties.

But in the current market, where properties can go for much higher than their asking price, land trusts can be left in the dust, said Chrissy Allen, the development director for the Blue Hill Heritage Trust.

The trust is currently closing in on its $1.2 million fundraising goal to buy Wallamatogus Mountain, a scenic summit in Penobscot. But hopes of getting another parcel that would have connected the land to another nearby conservation property were dashed when the owner wanted to sell for more than the appraised value.

“It makes the competition much steeper for us,” she said.

The amount of time it can take for trusts to secure properties also puts them at a disadvantage in the current market. Trusts often need to get internal approval to go after properties, get an appraisal and then fundraise for the purchases, a process that can sometimes take years.

The fundraising effort for the Wallamatogus parcel that the Blue Hill trust is buying is expected to wrap up soon, almost a year after it started. That timeline is considered lighting quick for the field.

The uphill climb that land trusts face isn’t new, but the fast-paced, rising market that has taken hold in Maine has pushed it to the extreme, said Ciona Ulbrich, a senior project manager for Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

“We can’t pay what the market is usually driving,” she said. “We lose out on some key opportunities.”

Maine Coast Heritage Trust helped Penobscot secure 192 acres of undeveloped woods in March, but — like the Blue Hill land trust — missed an opportunity to buy another small adjacent parcel that would have connected to other conservation lands because it sold sight unseen in just a couple days.

But, in a twist of luck, the new owner decided it wasn’t a good fit and sold it to the town, which closed on the property earlier this month.

Most situations don’t have a happy ending like that, and, unless a land owner wants to put their property into conservation, it can be tough to convince owners to sell their property for less in a process that will take a lot longer.

A lack of appraisers who do conservation valuations in Maine has also contributed to holding things up, making the process even longer.

“It’s becoming a major crisis in the state of Maine,” Allen said. “It slows things down and it does make it hard to conserve land.”

Ulbrich hoped that people seeing properties getting scooped up left and right might make them more interested in preserving land.

“It does make people more aware of the need for some conservation,” she said. “I think that sense is much more heightened in these crazier markets.”