Land project delivers 'gift' for Mainers

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Land project delivers 'gift' for Mainers

[url=http://www.bangornews.com/news/templates/?a=104694&z=6][b]Land project delivers 'gift' for Mainers[/b][/url]Tuesday, December 07, 2004 - Bangor Daily NewsBANGOR - When satellites pass over the East Coast snapping nighttime photographs of the scattered splotches of light that represent civilization, a 329,000-acre patch of Maine's North Woods is jet black, exposing no streetlights, headlights or neon. On Monday morning, Gov. John Baldacci joined state officials and conservationists to announce that protection from development for this acreage has been secured forever with the completion of the West Branch Project, a $35 million mix of land sales and conservation easements negotiated by the Bangor-based Forest Society of Maine.Standing before a postcard image of the North Woods that was wrapped up for the holidays in red ribbon, Baldacci called the project "a gift to the citizens of Maine and to the future of Maine."Just shy of a year ago, Alan Hutchinson of the society told Mainers he had struck a deal with the investment company that owns the one-time Great Northern Paper lands to secure the sale of 47,000 acres of land to the state for ecological reserves, as well as conservation easements on an additional 282,000 acres. The easements are among the first in the nation to bar development, create recreation rights and promote sustainable forestry. Wagner Forest Management will continue to harvest trees on the easement lands.The land and easements were bought for about $34 million and the additional million was used to establish an endowment fund that the Forest Society will use to manage and maintain the easement land "in perpetuity.""It's a pretty big chunk of Maine," said Sherry Huber, chairwoman of the fund-raising campaign. Bangor Daily News Publisher Richard J. Warren served as Huber's vice-chairman.Landscape-scale conservation projects like this, with a combination of privately owned working forests and state-owned ecological reserves, are the best means of protecting the North Woods, Bucky Owen of The Nature Conservancy's board of directors said Monday.A patchwork of conservation projects has protected much of northern Maine in recent years, but with rising prices, the West Branch project could be one of Maine's last giant land deals, he said.Initially, the West Branch project had two phases - the 329,000-acre project that is now complete, and an additional 327,000 acres farther east. On Monday, Hutchinson said that "phase two" as delineated on maps when the project was announced several years ago could take a different form as landowners come to the society with proposals."We're all trying to wrestle with phase two," Hutchinson said. "We have a whole lot of possibilities."In January, when the Forest Society announced its public fund-raising campaign, it already had secured a majority of the $35 million it needed. In hand were $19.7 million in grants from the federal Forest Legacy program, $1 million from the state's Land for Maine's Future grant program, and a number of private donations. The society had received a $750,000 challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation; however, receipt of those funds hinged on the society's ability to raise its last $3 million.On Monday, Hutchinson announced that the society had done so with the help of a half-million-dollar "capstone donation" from Great Lakes Hydro America LLC, the Canadian owner of the hydroelectric dams that once belonged to Great Northern Paper.The landowner, an investment firm called Merriweather LLC, also gave $1.5 million to the project. While a previous investment group that owned the land was revealed to be Yale University, the investor or investors who make up Merriweather have never been disclosed, causing the project to be viewed with suspicion by some.But with former Gov. Angus King, Baldacci, state agencies, much of Maine's conservation community and the whole congressional delegation behind it, the project prevailed.Public support ranged from a $3 million gift by The Nature Conservancy to $5 checks written by Maine residents living in the communities near the project. Overall, more than 300 donors were involved."Anything that's going to happen, it isn't going to be [done by] just one person or one group. It's a great collaboration," Baldacci said.