On Jan. 7, the Maine Natural Resource Conservation Program, in its inaugural round of grants, awarded nearly $2 million to help 11 public and non-profit groups move forward on important resource protection projects across Maine.

The Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance received $175,000 for its ongoing campaign to protect the 410-acre Whitten Hill property in Montville.

The Maine Natural Resource Conservation Program — which is administered by The Nature Conservancy in collaboration with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — announced awards totaling $1.8 million to help restore, enhance or preserve wetlands and other important habitats at 16 project sites from South Berwick to Argyle and from Sebago to Ellsworth.

The program was created to help offset unavoidable impacts on protected natural resources by funding the restoration or preservation of similar resources to maintain ecological benefits. It provides regulatory flexibility for agencies to approve a fee in lieu of traditional mitigation options. In lieu fees are collected by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and then transferred to the Natural Resource Conservation Fund at The Nature Conservancy.

“This is an important step forward for the conservation of aquatic resources in Maine,” said Alex Mas, who manages the program for The Nature Conservancy in Maine. “Traditional mitigation projects can often be scattered, small or poorly located; this program allows us to focus wetland preservation and restoration in priority areas and help to ensure their resiliency in the face of climate change and other threats.”

Protection of the 410-acre Whitten Hill property will result in a core block of 1,100 protected acres, an area larger than Sears Island. Whitten Hill and much of the 1,100 acres are to be protected as forever wild. The land is part of a larger landscape vision to conserve more than 10,000 contiguous acres of working forest and forever-wild lands that would stretch from the state’s Frye Mountain Wildlife Management Area to the Sheepscot River headwaters. More than 6,700 acres are conserved in this region to date, in public agency, land trust and private ownerships.

Fundraising for Whitten Hill has been under way since 2008 and a public appeal began last November. With this recent grant nearly $700,000, or about 98 percent of the project cost, has been raised. To donate to the Whitten Hill campaign please contact the SWLA office at 589-3230 or visit their Web site at www.swlamaine.org.

SWLA has been protecting land in the upper Sheepscot River watershed in Waldo County through conservation easements and land acquisitions since 1991. SWLA currently protects 824 acres and 11 diverse properties that include forever wild land, working woodlands, wetlands and fields. Trails on Whitten Hill are part of a 26-mile footpath network that is jointly maintained with the Georges River Land Trust.