Conservation advocates believe replacing the current staff would hurt the visitor experience, but the state says the change comes with benefits.
by Kevin Miller, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
AUGUSTA — Conservation advocates are raising concerns about Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to outsource two dozen jobs at Maine’s state parks and to eliminate management positions involved in overseeing historic sites or public lands.
But LePage administration officials say the changes – including the shift to seasonal contract laborers – are aimed at improving efficiency and refocusing resources at a time when the state parks are adding programs and setting visitation records.
“It’s not just the weather that is responsible for higher attendance,” said Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
Lawmakers are expecting a spirited discussion next month when they begin diving into LePage’s budget proposals related to Whitcomb’s department. In many ways, the debate highlights ongoing tensions between the LePage administration and Maine’s outdoor recreation and environmental communities over the decision to merge the Department of Agriculture with the Department of Conservation nearly five years ago.
“The state parks system always had been Maine’s brand … and now it is an increasingly minor sub-bureau within the Department of Agriculture,” said Alan Stearns, executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust and a former deputy director at the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands during the Baldacci administration.
One of the major changes proposed by LePage in his two-year, $6.8 billion budget is to hire contractors to fill 24 seasonal positions within the parks bureau: 14 full-time assistant park rangers, one part-time assistant park ranger and nine full-time laborers. The potential shift to contractors is not expected to save the department money – the $410,000 in payroll for the state employees is transferred to a contractor fund. Instead, Whitcomb said he believes jobs such as lawn maintenance can be done faster and more efficiently by contractors, especially considering the “antiquated” equipment owned by the state.
“(Current workers) are good people, but I don’t think we have kept up with the equipment,” Whitcomb said.
Stearns and others warn, however, that the move would hurt the visitor experience because the assistant park rangers and laborers are often the public face of the department during the summer tourism season. Many seasonal workers return year after year, so they know the parks well enough to quickly direct a visitor to a destination or help guide an ambulance through a jam-packed park to an injury scene. Seasonal workers are also a traditional recruiting pool for full-time workers.
“You’ll hear that they’re not laying anybody off, but (seasonal workers) are the meat and potatoes of park labor during the summer,” Stearns said. “The administration will say they are replacing them with contractors. But the reality is … they are doing everything from parking management to crisis (response) and cleaning the toilets.”
LARGER BUDGET, INCREASED FEES
Maine’s more than 50 state parks and historic sites reported nearly 2.9 million visitors in 2016, setting an attendance record for the second straight year. The properties range from historic forts and historic sites, such as Colonial Pemaquid, to the immensely popular sandy beaches offered at Popham, Scarborough and Crescent Beach state parks.
The “general operations” budget for Maine’s parks increased 18 percent, from $6.7 million to $7.9 million, between fiscal years 2012 and 2017. But Mainers are also paying more to use their state parks. The price of an annual park pass rose 50 percent this year, from $70 to $105, the first increase since 2002. Single-day entrance fees rose by about $2 at most parks in 2015, and camping fees went up in 2016, increasing from $2 to $5 for a reservation and from $3 to $10 for the actual camping fee.
Since the consolidation of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Conservation in 2012, the LePage administration has trimmed the number of managers throughout the new, larger agency. And LePage’s fiscal year 2018-19 budget proposes additional cuts to what are largely vacant positions.
For instance, the governor has proposed eliminating one vacant managerial position – technically described as a “public service manager III” – that oversaw much of the field staff and management of Maine’s hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands. The LePage administration also has steadily transferred more oversight of the management of Maine’s 600,000 acres of public lands – for recreational access, wildlife habitat and timber harvesting – to the Maine Forest Service. And in 2015, the Legislature rejected a LePage proposal to dissolve the Bureau of Parks and Lands and disperse its responsibilities among other agencies, including the forest service.
Eliza Donoghue, forests and wildlife policy advocate at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and other conservation advocates have raised alarms that the mission of the forest service is different from that of the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
Donoghue said she is hearing significant concerns about the department’s ability to oversee the large number of conservation easements on lands. Far from “making do” with fewer managers, Donoghue said she is hearing concerns from bureau staffers about their ability to carry out the agency’s obligations.
“Just because there is nobody currently filling these positions doesn’t mean they are not very important positions,” Donoghue said. “The stories I am hearing about floundering at the department and the bureau are staggering.”
STREAMLINING GONE TOO FAR?
Stearns oversaw conservation land acquisition as well as planning for four years as deputy director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands under LePage’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. That deputy director position also was proposed for elimination in a previous budget, and Stearns said he fears that the quality of the bureau’s services are being eroded because there are simply fewer people to administer the agency’s many complicated obligations.
“It’s not a question of the fox guarding the henhouse. It’s a situation that even the fox has been laid off,” Stearns said.
Whitcomb, not surprisingly, sees the situation differently. The department has “absolutely” streamlined in recent years, but also has invested heavily in improving handicap access to the parks and addressing the backlog of maintenance projects.
“It’s fair to say that we have looked at middle management, and I think we have tried to keep boots on the ground” by supporting park-level employees rather than those based in Augusta, Whitcomb said. “We are learning to do some of those functions with different folks.”
LePage’s budget also would eliminate the position of historic site specialist, which was essentially the bureau’s chief historian responsible for management, interpretation and restoration of dozens of state-owned historic properties. The position is currently vacant but was previously held by the current director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, Tom Desjardin, an author and historian who has held several positions in the LePage administration.
While Stearns described Desjardin as “both the primary champion and primary expert” on those historic sites, he worries that trying to balance both the bureau director and chief historian roles simultaneously will be difficult. But Whitcomb said eliminating the historian position makes sense given Desjardin’s experience.
“He is in a position now where he can really focus on that,” Whitcomb said of the state’s historical sites. “I think it’s a model that can work very, very well.”