A conservation end run

During the rancorous debate over the state budget earlier this month in Augusta, a last-minute proposal by Gov. Paul LePage contained several “stealthy,” yet enormously important changes in tax policy.

Chief among them was a provision that could have led to the elimination of tax exemptions on land enrolled in the tree growth program or held in easement by conservation organizations.

While removing those exemptions would produce a financial windfall for many communities, the back-end cost in benefits to society and the economy in general could be enormous.

Many communities lack sufficient financial resources to purchase desirable land for public recreation, timber growth, and protection of views or saving unique natural areas. Conservations easements have made the numbers work.

There is a long, proud history here on Mount Desert Island of granting conservation easements to institutions such as Maine Coast Heritage Trust and Acadia National Park. These lands have become an integral part of the area’s conservation success stories.

Certainly, conservation easements, like any facet of tax policy, always are open to debate. The problem arises, however, when a major shift is proposed as part of something being done at the last minute, precluding an open and thoughtful debate. Submitted as an inducement for the governor to sign off on a budget, there were no public hearings, no chance for the public to weigh in and no chance for deliberation by members of the Legislature.

Significant alterations of longstanding and successful public policy should not be used as political carrots and sticks in the heat of budget negotiations. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

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