Yale is taking flak from conservation groups and state officials in Maine who are frustrated with ongoing negotiations over hundreds of thousands of acres of undeveloped forest owned by the University.

The large Yale property holding in the West Branch area of Maine, a valuable asset in the University’s $10 billion endowment portfolio, has become the focal point of a debate over land use in the state. The state of Maine and various public interest groups are attempting to create a conservation area on Yale’s property and land adjacent to it, but critics say that Yale’s property manager in Maine is driving a hard bargain at the expense of the environment.

Creating a conservation easement, a privately owned but publically accessible area, would require Maine to pay Yale and other affected landowners millions of dollars to forfeit significant foresting rights in the area. The easement — 656,000 acres in size — would become the largest conservation easement in the United States and allow for various forms of public recreation, including hiking, camping and hunting.

“It’s a test in many ways” said Alan Hutchinson, executive director of the Forest Society of Maine. “A publicly funded and held easement at this scale and complexity while allowing these lands to stay in private hands — it’s unprecedented.”

But negotiations between the state and Yale’s land manager, already two years old, have frequently stalled. Making matters worse, Maine’s attorney general concluded in August that the drawn-out process was emphasizing forestry at the expense of land conservation, forcing several new amendments to a draft agreement.

“Things are made more difficult because there is so much public money going into this deal,” said Jym St. Pierre, the Maine director of Restore the North Woods, an environmental organization. “There are already millions of taxpayer dollars appropriated to this project.”

And politics are adding fuel to the fire.

“In essence, a normal part of the negotiation process became public, and everything became more complicated than it already was,” said Roger Milliken, a member of Land for Maine’s Future’s board.

The negotiations gained widespread publicity in Maine just weeks ago when it was revealed that Yale was one of the property owners involved. For the previous two years, state negotiators only dealt with Wagner Forest Management, the firm that manages land for Yankee Forest LLC.

An IRS 990 form reveals that Yankee Forest LLC is actually a Yale subsidiary, and had assets of $108.7 million at the end of 1999, according to the most recent figures available.

“Wagner was instructed by the owners not to reveal who they were,” said Ron Lovaglio, Maine’s commissioner of conservation. “Everyone was shocked when it turned out to be Yale.”

Many are puzzled that Yale and its renowned School of Forestry and Environmental Studies are not paying closer attention.

“What’s striking about it is that the School of Forestry does have a fine reputation for tackling the issues of sustainability and they have no input or oversight on what’s happening in here,” Milliken said.

University officials were quick to distance themselves from the issues involved in the negotiations, noting that most Yale investments are controlled by outside managers and that those managers are carefully chosen.

No administrator would comment specifically on the land deal. Wagner did not return phone calls.

The School of Forestry issued a statement saying it is not involved with negotiations in Maine.

“Yale’s endowment has invested in forest land, but we have nothing to do with its management,” said spokesman David DeFusco.Ê”We manage the school’s forests, which are mostly here in Connecticut which are used mostly for experiments and training. They are very different than endowment lands.”

Negotiations are further complicated by conflicting interests among conservationists and environmentalists.

Some lukewarm supporters of the easement had originally intended to convert the land, and a larger surrounding area, into a national park.

“When these folks came along and said, ‘Hey, were going to save these lands,’ we said we already have a proposal on the table that would protect these lands and be a lot more protective,” St. Pierre said.

On the flip side, others view sustainable forestry on the land to be crucial. The timber industry contributes $5.6 billion to the Maine economy each year, providing tens of thousands of jobs.

Whether or not Yale decides to play a more active role, the process will continue to be difficult.

“The state is trying to achieve some pretty lofty goals here,” Hutchinson said. “We have left intact one of the largest undeveloped blocks of land — an incredible quirk of faith and history, but global pressures are starting to change that.”