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Collaborative aims to accelerate midcoast land acquisition

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A future Wildlands and Woodlands scenario shows a range in forest cover across New England with few areas for human habitation in the northern region.

Harvard report says 70% of New England forestland should be free from development

By Diana George Chapin

While land trusts across the country have worked in local areas to conserve and preserve land in earnest since the 1960s, more recently they have sought to regionalize, accelerate the pace of their efforts and attract a new, national audience of conservation funders to Maine. These efforts are guided by and associated with land-conservation efforts throughout the northeast.

Maureen Hoffman works as executive director of the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association (SVCA), a Newcastle-based non-profit, corporate land trust that works to limit the development of land through conservation easements in Knox, Lincoln, Waldo and Kennebec Counties. SVCA, along with a number of trusts, has formed a collaborative to attract funding to purchase conservation easements in the 825,000-acre area that extends from the east side of the Kennebec River to the St. George’s River.

“There are nine local land trusts in the mid-coast area and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust,” said Hoffman. “We are trying to think about the bigger picture. Looking at the mid-coast, where are the places that we might make the best impact for our communities together, and how could we bring money to the region to help do that?”

The SVCA’s spring 2011 newsletter heralds the “12 Rivers Conservation Collaborative” as “a response to the growing awareness that landscape-scale conservation can accelerate the pace of conservation while keeping the costs low.” The collaborative is named after the number of river systems that extend from the Kennebec estuary to the western shore of Penobscot Bay.

“Land trusts are often small entities that began with people that were in the community, meeting around someone’s kitchen table to respond to an issue in their area,” said Hoffman. “We have been on very good terms with land trusts in our area because we’re in a similar type of work. But we all are struggling. The economy is tough. The challenges out there continue.”

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics Database, the combined total revenue for the non-profit corporate trusts in the 12 Rivers Collaborative during the last year they reported via Form 990, is over $10.8 million; their combined total assets equals more than $166 million. (see chart to left)

The newsletter states the collaborative aligns with and is “nestled within a larger vision for New England” modeled by the “Wildlands and Woodlands” Report, which was generated by Harvard Forest, a research and educational center affiliated with Harvard University. See the center’s partners at http://www.wildlandsandwoodlands.org/join-us/ww-partners/partner-list.

The report calls for, according to the SVCA newsletter, “a long-term conservation effort to retain at least 70% of New England forestland permanently free from development.”

“The current wave of deforestation, which often involves asphalt and concrete, is much more difficult to reverse than the historical clearing of the land for farms or lumber,” the SVCA newsletter reports. Hoffman confirms the group was awarded a grant from the Environmental Funders Network (EFN), a joint project of the Maine Community Foundation and the Maine Philanthropy Center.

A grant application found at http://www.environmentalfundersnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2010-SVCA.pdf describes the goal of the 12 Rivers project as seeking to “accelerate land protection in midcoast Maine by aggregating resources and conservation strategies into a single effort.” With the funds, the collaborative undertakes public and individual outreach efforts to engage the professional forestry community, local municipalities and private landowners.

The grant provides $20,000 for appraisal costs to landowners considering permanent protection for their undeveloped lands. The remaining funds are designated for administration, collaborative meetings and education. As in-kind donation, the value of land trust staff time was calculated at a rate of $40 per hour per staffer.

The application reads: “Through educational outreach, the 12 Rivers Collaborative will seek to educate those residents who are good stewards of their undeveloped land, the foresters who aid them and the towns that oversee them, that protection of these lands increases the well-being and economic status of all.”

The application provides no citation to quantify those statements and does not provide the entity or town names of those said to be “various agency, business and municipal sponsors” of the collaborative.

With a goal of creating a landscape-scale project of many tens of thousands of acres—a size SVCA contends will appeal to larger funders across the country—the project aims to increase easements in the designated area from 40,000 to 80,000 acres.

In a phone interview in June, Hoffman said the work would take place over the next 50 years. But in a public meeting held at the Belfast Free Library in March, other collaborators indicated it was imperative that a controlling interest in the land be acquired in the very near future.

One individual who often serves as a spokesperson for Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance (SWLA), one of the collaborating trusts, said publicly, “We have to do this as quickly as possible. We don’t have all the time in the world, before the land is too developed and fragmented,” indicating a timeframe of the next 10 to 20 years for doubling the amount of conserved land in the midcoast.

Existing and emerging regional conservation partnerships are working across political boundaries and landscapes to advance Wildlands and Woodland Project objectives.

At the Belfast event, a map on display showed the 12 Rivers region with 10 encircled areas, denoting primary landmasses targeted for easement acquisition, each associated with a local land trust. The map was marked in bold, clear letters, “Draft Confidential.”

When asked in June if copies of the map available for the general public to review, Hoffman said simply, “No.”

Will 80,000 acres of conserved land in the midcoast be enough? Will land trusts then be able to sit back and say, “There, we did it; we’re done.”

“We’ve never set any kind of goal like that,” Hoffman said. “We don’t think in those terms. We have an on-going conversation about how much land we would ever want to own, and we’re already realizing that owned lands for an association like ours—a small association—is more ‘expensive’ for us to maintain than protecting through other tools like the conservation easement, where land remains under the landowners’ control and responsibility.  And so I think that as organizations mature they do think that for owned lands, we’re probably not as attracted to that tool as we have been in the past.”

Hoffman said she sees consolidation of land trusts in the future. “How far off that future is, I’m not sure,” she said.

“As time is going by, the work of land trusts is moving more from protecting land to stewarding land,” she said. “Those kinds of tasks can be done much more easily by a joint organization or a merged organization or an umbrella organization. There are a lot of land trusts in Maine, and they are all small, and I think we’re all very concerned about them being able to maintain their responsibilities in the future.”

With no materials available for public scrutiny, no input from the general public on desired quantities or areas of acquisition, with projects funded by investors living outside the targeted geographic area, no goals or limits in sight for acquisition, and a professed inability to maintain lands over which a controlling interest is held, what does the future hold for rural Maine residents and communities?

Some land trusts are not yet ready to share their answer.

This is part of an ongoing series about Maine Land Trusts – Read all articles here.

Diana George Chapin is a freelance writer and a fourth-generation family farmer from Montville, Maine.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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