by Scott Thistle, State Politics Editor
Sun Journal news story
AUGUSTA — A key legislative committee has rejected a proposal by the administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage that sought to dissolve the state’s Bureau of Public Lands and fold its functions into two other agencies within the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
As part of his two-year, $6.57 billion state budget proposal, LePage wanted to fold some of the bureau’s functions into the Maine Forest Service and others into the Bureau of Conservation.
Under the proposal, the Forest Service would manage all state public reserves and other state property while the Bureau of Conservation would manage state parks.
The Bureau of Public Lands now manages about 600,000 acres of forest in state parks. Maine Department of Conservation Commissioner Walt Whitcomb, who supports the change, said the move would give oversight of the state’s timber resources, including those on public lands, to the Forest Service, ensuring uniform management of the forest.
The Legislature’s Agriculture Committee on Wednesday voted 11-1 against the change, sending a message to the budget-writing Appropriations Committee that it too should keep the Bureau of Public Lands intact as it proceeds with that portion of LePage’s budget proposal.
“It was a very strong bipartisan vote,” said state Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, House chairman of the Agriculture Committee.
Hickman said arguments for the shift, which included putting all state foresters under one roof, simply didn’t add up for the committee. Bureau of Public Lands foresters were praised for their fine management of state park forests during the public hearings on the proposal, he said.
Hickman said there was no testimony, beyond that of the administration, in support of the change.
“We didn’t get any emails, calls, letters from anyone in the state who supported it,” Hickman said. “Every correspondence we received was opposed to it. The commissioner (of the Department of Agriculture) and the director of the Forest Service didn’t present a compelling enough case for making the move.”
State Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, another committee member, said he agreed with the decision to reject the restructuring at this time. Saviello said Thursday that lawmakers were not given enough information to show why they ought to make the change.
Saviello, a trained forester, said he understands in concept why it makes sense to put all state foresters under a unified command, making it easier for them to collaborate and align forest management and harvest methods with a “synergy” they may not now have.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t continue this conversation, but you can’t do it in a two-month period of time with us, as a committee, dealing with everything from seeing-eye dogs to spruce budworm to pet surcharges,” Saviello said. “You can’t focus on this kind of reorganization without taking care of other business.”
The vote could be a prelude to another expected in the Agriculture Committee next week. A LePage proposal looks to reshape the Department of Conservation by eliminating about 20 or so forest ranger positions in the Forest Service and replacing them with six conservation law enforcement officers.
In 2014, the Legislature overturned a LePage veto of a bill that allows Maine’s forest rangers to be armed with guns. But LePage’s current budget proposal creates a new type of conservation officer while reducing the number of rangers.
Saviello said he suspects the committee will also reject that reorganization on the grounds that the Department of Conservation hasn’t made its case as to why that change is necessary.
“I’ve never been opposed to the rangers having guns,” Saviello said. “I don’t have a problem (with) perhaps changing the mission of some of those rangers, but as they leave or retire. Just like you would do in any business, you evaluate what you need them to do.”
He said a redistribution of rangers based on needs around the state might be one reason to restructure. Placing a renewed focus on forest insect pests could be another reason to do so, he said.
“You don’t just carte-blanche change it,” Saviello said. “I can’t go there. I don’t have a reason other than the fact that (LePage is) the boss and that’s how you want to make the changes, but I have to vote on that and I’m elected by my people and not by anybody else.”