The Maine Woods

A Publication of the Forest Ecology Network

 Volume Five     Number One                           Late Winter 2001

 Easements and the West Branch Project

by David Lewis

The federal and state governments are preparing to allocate more than $16 million to purchase conservation easements north of Moosehead Lake, thereby clearing the stage to complete phase II of the West Branch Project.

Conservation easements are commonly used to protect land from development in areas where there is a threat. While Alan Hutchinson (Bangor Daily News, Dec. 9-10) claims the West Branch easements provide 3permanent protection of conservation values2 to Maine citizens, I question exactly what conservation values Hutchinson is referring to and what development pressures really exist north of Moosehead.

A conservation easement is a partial interest in land, as opposed to full fee ownership, and can be an effective tool for regions attempting to preserve small parcels of undeveloped land in the face of high growth. The Orono land trust has successfully and cost-effectively utilized easements to preserve a trail system in an area with constant development pressures.

If conservation easements are to be applied to the region north of Moosehead Lake, the natural question concerns the extent of development pressure in that area. The recent story of John Malone1s purchase of Spencer Lake (Bangor Daily News, Nov. 27) implies a threat to the north woods. But the focus of Malone's purchase was on shorefront property. While phase II of the West Branch Project protects some valuable shoreline around Ragged Lake and Fifth St. John Pond, the majority of the land contains no such water bodies. What is the development value in townships such as T6 R18 or T5 R15? This is good old- fashioned timberland with no shoreline that is far from any paved road and any development threat.

A second question concerns the tree-growth tax program. We've heard a great deal about this program recently, particularly about how it protects against development and is "one of the most effective anti-sprawl tools." Obviously our public officials don't feel too comfortable about its anti-development capabilities if we now have to go ahead and pay forest landowners additional money not to develop their land. Do we still give the West Branch landowners a tree-growth tax break even though we're planning on paying them $16 million not to develop timberland? How many times should we pay a landowner for the same public benefit?

A third question regards the additional "conservation values" to which Hutchinson referred. Do easements really provide for additional values such as one might find in true public lands? Landowners will still be able to harvest timber unsustainably, spray with herbicides and generally do everything they've been doing for the past 100-plus years. Easements preserve the status quo in the Maine woods. They do not offer additional ecosystem protection or conservation values; rather they assure large landowners an even bigger paycheck.

If the government just wants to protect threatened wildlands against development, why not focus the attention on lands with a real threat? Several highly accessible and threatened wildlands come to mind, such as the Rangeley lakes, the Down East lakes and the Appalachian Trail corridor. An example of an effective wildland easement is on Nicatous Lake, northeast of Bangor. Nicatous Lake provides many lakefront amenities and is in close proximity to a metropolitan area and paved roads. The development threats were real on Nicatous before the easement, and they continue to be real on many other scenic lakes and ponds that have far more development pressures than the West Branch area.

To focus so much attention purchasing development rights in a region with relatively little development pressure is an inefficient usage of public funds. The West Branch Project is a waste of valuable conservation dollars to benefit only a few large landowners.

David Lewis is a graduate student in the Department of Resource Economics and Policy at the University of Maine.

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