By Ellen Hostert
Maine’s land trusts have recently been the subject of scrutiny. As president of Downeast Coastal Conservancy (DCC), I welcome the attention, provided the facts are correctly presented. Unfortunately, public discussion about land trusts is often undermined by misinformation, and the public may not know the facts.
The biggest error is that land trusts’ land “has been taken off the tax rolls.” The fact is that 94.5 percent of all the land owned by land trusts in Maine remains on the tax rolls, usually at open space tax rates. Property taxes or payments in lieu of taxes are paid on more than 98.5 percent of all land trust conserved land in Maine. The fact is that Downeast Coastal Conservancy pays property taxes or payments in lieu of property taxes in every town where DCC owns land. DCC’s budget for 2018 for such tax payments to towns is over $20,000. The fact is that land conserved by land trusts actually accounts for only one-third of 1 percent of the $18.5 billion of property tax-exempt real estate located in Maine’s municipalities. This percent is based on the per-acre value of conserved land that the Governor’s consultant, The Boulos Co., determined. The fact is that land trusts’ conserved land is only a tiny sliver of tax-exempt real estate in Maine’s municipalities.
Besides directly contributing to our local tax base by payments to towns, land trusts indirectly generate tax revenue by supporting local economies through the protection of more than 2.1 million acres of working forests, 36,000 acres of productive farmland and 60 access sites for marine fishermen. Land trust lands are also popular destinations for visitors, strengthening the tourism sector, the state’s largest industry. Washington County’s economy could benefit from more tourism because tourism means jobs.
The second biggest misunderstanding is that the land owned by land trusts is not available for public use. The fact is that all, every one, of Downeast Coastal Conservancy’s lands are open to the public for hunting, fishing and hiking. DCC’s lands offer over 20 miles of trails and seven hand-carry boat launch sites for public use. In 2016, DCC offered 26 events open to the public on our properties, and nearly 500 people participated in them. In October 2017, DCC hosted the inaugural Bad Little Trail Run on our Machias River Preserve and 69 runners participated.
It is false to say that land trusts are “preserving land with no benefit to the taxpayer.” The IRS does not allow that; all land trust-conserved lands must pass a public benefit test. The fact is that because of Maine’s network of 80 land trusts, the public enjoys a diverse network of outdoor recreational areas that compare favorably with those offered at state and federal parks, and, with few exceptions, use of the land trusts’ lands is free to all. Specifically, residents and visitors will find the following benefits on land trust-conserved properties across the state of Maine:
- More than 1,250 miles of hiking trails, from family-friendly nature paths to more rugged routes ending atop wind-swept summits, and everything in between.
- Over 275 miles of mountain bike trails, 345 miles of ATV trails and 570 miles of snowmobile trails.
- More than 200 beaches offering opportunities to swim, picnic and observe wildlife.
- Over 60 saltwater and 140 freshwater boat launch sites.
- More than 90 percent of all lands conserved by Maine land trusts are open to hunting.
Land trust-protected properties are especially critical in Maine, a state that continues to lag well behind others when it comes to public lands available for outdoor recreation. In fact, Maine has the lowest percentage of public lands (6.5 percent of the state) of any state east of the Appalachian Mountains. By comparison, more than 17 percent of New Hampshire is publicly owned. And, in Florida, one in every four acres is conservation land owned by the public.
These facts are based on a 2017 survey by the Maine Land Trust Network. For more information on land trusts in Maine, visit www.mltn.org. While there, you can look at “Land Trusts Work for Maine.” The culmination of the 2017 survey, this 12-page report outlines ways in which land trusts are strengthening Maine’s economy and benefiting our communities.
To further check these facts, please visit DCC’s website at www.downeastcoastalconservancy.org and look at “Land Trusts: Facts not Fiction,” prepared by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, The Nature Conservancy and Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Or come to DCC’s office at 6 Colonial Way in Machias to pick up the two-page handout.
To learn more about DCC, please visit DCC online or at our office. We invite you to find some great opportunities for outdoor recreation on our preserved lands.
Ellen Hostert is board president of the Downeast Coastal Conservancy.