A late afternoon in autumn at Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, which was acquired in part with funds from Land for Maine's Future. (Wikipedia/Paul VanDerWerf)
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Land for Maine’s Future has for decades been one of the state’s most popular programs, but to be honest I’ve never much cared for the name.

What does it mean to conserve land for the future? Are we putting it in a bank to mature? What does Land for Maine’s Future mean for the present day?

As it turns out, lands set aside as part of the Land for Maine’s Future program are utilized right now, and their importance was never more apparent than last summer.

First, some background.

Maine voters established the Land for Maine’s Future program, often shortened to LMF, in 1987 to use state and matching federal funds to purchase lands for their natural and recreational value. It has since been expanded to include farmland, working waterfront, and the creation of public access to the water. The program has been reaffirmed by voters six times since it was created, most recently in 2012. There’s a bill in the Legislature to fund the program again this year.

According to data provided by the state, the Land for Maine’s Future program has protected 62 water access sites; 41 farms and 9,755 acres of farmland; 26 commercial working waterfront properties; 1,272 miles of shorelines of rivers, lakes and ponds; 58 miles of coastline, and 158 miles of former railroad corridors for recreational trails. In total, the program has protected about 604,000 acres of conservation and recreation lands. An additional 333,000 acres of forest land remain in private hands but with permanent conservation easements.

The thing is, these lands aren’t really for the future at all, they’re for right now. And they got a ton of use during the pandemic summer of 2020.

The pandemic forced people outdoors, and many areas reported record visitation. For example, despite opening up almost a month later than usual, Maine’s 12 state park campgrounds recorded more total visitors in 2020 – more than 270,000 – than in all of non-pandemic 2018. Overall, more than 3 million people visited Maine’s state parks last year, a new record. Land for Maine’s Future funds have been used to help conserve lands in state parks from Saco to Presque Isle.

Although official numbers aren’t collected, similarly high usage rates were reported statewide on hiking trails; rail-to-trail corridors; cross-country ski; snowshoe, and snowmobile trails – and more, many of which exist at least in part thanks to Land for Maine’s Future.

From famous Maine landmarks like Mount Agamenticus and Mount Kineo to lesser-known but locally important options like Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, the Four Seasons Trail in Madawaska, or the Newport-Dover Railroad Corridor, LMF helped give Mainers lots of places to escape the pandemic last summer, and for years to come.

Funding Land for Maine’s Future is again expected to face a fight in the Legislature, as it always is when money is involved. But this last, terrible summer proved the value of recreational lands, not as places to be saved for the future but as vital parts of our present. Let’s hope our legislators recognize it, too.

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.