The Conservation Legacy of Angus King

From his time as a conservation lobbyist to serving as governor and now as a U.S. senator, King has long advocated for protecting Maine’s public land and witnessed the tripling of protected land in Maine

From his earliest days in Maine in 1976, first as a legal mind with Pine Tree Legal in Skowhegan and then hired by State Senator Hoddy Hildreth as a conservation lobbyist with Coastal Resources Action Committee, Angus King saw the value in conservation for Maine. In the late ’70s, King championed three key pieces of legislation for the coalition of environmental organizations including the Natural Resources Council, Audubon Maine, and Maine Coast Heritage Trust. The three bills included the Maine Bottle Bill, the billboard bill, and a real estate transfer tax bill. King recounts how the Bottle Bill passed, but the billboard bill took a bit more wrangling. The easy part, King says, was using Vermont’s bill and crossing out the word Vermont and replacing it with Maine. He then secured one of the last needed votes from a young state senator at the time, Olympia Snowe, representing Androscoggin County. But it was John Chapman who taught him about the art of political negotiation.

“The last vote that we needed was from a guy named John Chapman, who was the state senator for Bath. He was also on the board of the Bath Maritime Museum, and the price of getting his vote was to exempt billboards for transportation museums,” King says. The original statute included an exemption for historical and cultural institutions, but that part was repealed years later. The real estate transfer tax bill proved more difficult. The proposal was to dedicate the revenues to a land acquisition fund for the state to buy and conserve land. While it passed the legislature, Governor James B. Longley vetoed the bill, under pressure from the real estate industry. It was a lesson that stayed with King: Find your allies.

By 1980, Maine had one of the lowest percentages of public land that was accessible in the country in terms of the percentage of its mass. “It was like one percent. The average around the country is probably five percent,” says King. “Maine had a very unusual practice with the large paper companies where they made their property accessible to everybody for hunting, fishing, hiking, and they even leased space for building cottages. However, in the early ’80s, the paper companies got together and decided that more and more people were using their property and they had to have some control over it. They put up gates at some of the logging roads and charged fees to cover the cost of trash removal. Well, in northern Maine it caused a revolution. People hated it because, you know, suddenly they had to pay for something that had always been freely available.” King found himself at a turning point for public land conservation in Maine. Under Governor Joseph E. Brennan in 1986, King was appointed to the Governor’s Commission on Outdoor Recreation. During those few months of the hearings, while driving through Naples with his wife, Mary, he saw condos going up and remembers thinking, “This is the future, being adjacent to the Northeast.” It was clear to him that Maine needed something revolutionary to solve the problem, and the commission recommended issuing  a $50 million bond to buy public land.

By the time the proposal was drafted, a new Republican governor had been elected, John R. McKernan. King went to work on the new governor, walking him through the State House and showing him how Percival Baxter was the only former governor with a bust made in his likeness. “I ended up being the chair of the campaign committee for this legislation, and it passed, although much to my consternation, in the middle of the night on the last day, they stole $15 million of our proposal for other purposes. It ended up being $35 million in the end.” This was the first major step towards the conservation of public land in Maine creating the Land For Maine’s Future.

King was inspired by this early win and not deterred by the backdoor politics. As Maine’s 72nd governor from 1995 to 2003, he went on to sign another $50 million in bond issues to conserve Maine public lands. Through the Land For Maine’s Future program, Maine has now established over 600,000 acres of public conservation land, including working farms, forests, waterfronts, miles of recreational trails, and critical wildlife habitat. Prior to this, the only other major effort to this scale in the state was led by Baxter, who purchased 6,000 acres in 1930 that led to the eventual securing of 200,000 acres through his family, gifts, and trusts to create Baxter State Park—and the illustrious bust in the State House. During King’s time in public service, Maine has put three times that amount of land under conservation, transforming from a state with very little public land in the 1970s.

“When elected governor of Maine, one of my missions was land conservation. We did everything we could think of and we worked with a myriad of groups. During my eight years as governor, we put more Maine land under conservation than in the entire prior 175-year history of Maine,” King says. His pride is palpable in his voice and on his face, over Zoom, as we walk through the many legislative turns that he has taken to ensure Maine’s public lands. “I consider this, one of my most proud accomplishments. And it wasn’t by accident. It was a deliberate strategy.”

With a Congress in gridlock, outside of an emergency bailout, and an electorate polarized in ways we haven’t seen in decades, King’s independence stands out as an anomaly these days. There are only 3 independents in Congress today, in a nation gripped in a two-party system steeped in deep, almost tribal, loyalty. When asked how one passes anything today in these polarized and politicized times, King offers the Noah’s Ark policy: “You only bring on co-sponsors two by two. You don’t get 40 Democrats and four Republicans. You go two by two. This Restore Our Parks Act has always been completely bipartisan.” He also avoids polarizing issues to cross the aisle. “You pick your issues. There are some issues that are almost inherently partisan like immigration, gun control. Some of those things are so polarizing right now that it’s very difficult. They are clear litmus issues for the parties, but there are others that aren’t.”

King used this two-by-two approach to ensure the Restore Our Parks Act would be included in the Great Outdoor Act, the biggest land conservation proposal in 50 years, with three other senators: one Democrat in Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and two Republicans, Senators Robert Portman and Lamar Alexander, who each understand the powerful impact of conservation on their states. While Alexander lives in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains, Warner’s state is home to the Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park. King fell in love with the national parks outside of his own state of Maine after embarking on a 33-state trip in an RV with his wife, Mary, and two children ages 9 and 12 the day after he stepped down as governor  in 2003. They traveled 15,000 miles and visited 17 of the nation’s 61 national parks and he later wrote about it in his book, Governor’s Travels: How I Left Politics, Learned to Back Up a Bus, and Found America, two years before winning his seat in the Senate. “This week is a culmination for me of something I have been at for almost 40 years,” King says.

A realist, over time King became more adept at using industry and private funding to help build up Land for Maine’s Future Program. “We learned some practical lessons: it was much better if it was done as a matching fund so that it generated additional money from individuals, conservation groups, corporations, whomever.” Conservation easements also became de rigueur during his tenure. This allowed woodlands to continue to be harvested without worry they would be turned into shopping malls. These easements controlled the development rights and that was cheaper than purchasing the land outright. “ In other words, we made the money go further,” says King.

Negotiation and creative collaboration have been hallmarks of his work and his treatment of public land set a precedent for how Maine would protect its land. Forestry companies like Weyerhaeuser and JD Irving, Maine’s largest landowner, fall under Maine’s Tree Growth Tax Law, which is essentially a tax abatement. King says he can’t take any credit for this work but sees it as another example of land stewardship in Maine. “Normally, real estate is assessed for property taxes at what’s called its ‘highest and best use’, which means whatever brings in the most money. Tree Growth says, if you keep your land in trees, we will assess it at its value for trees, not for a subdivision. And that’s been a very important program. And it fits in with all of these other pieces that we’re talking about.”

Mainers have long been rooted in the land and sea of this 200-year old state. Percival Proctor Baxter wrote after beginning his conservation of Baxter State Park, “Man is born to die, his works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin, in all its glory, forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.” Hunting, fishing, hiking, and living off the land are a way of life in Maine, and King’s dedication to this state’s commitment to land preservation and conservation has been steadfast.

“As I look back, I think the Land for Maine’s Future program may be the single most important thing that I’ve done in my career. This is one of the few things that we can do that’s permanent. Once you set aside Acadia or a conservation easement in the great North Woods outside of Greenville, it’s very unlikely that that’s ever going to change,” King says. “It benefits people who will never hear of us, the people who go to Mount Kineo up at Moosehead Lake and take a family hike up to the top to see that amazing view. They’re never going to hear of Angus King or Richard Barringer. They’re just going to know something is really cool. And it was set aside for them. That family could be there 100 hundred years from now. To me, that’s the essence of what service should be.”

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