The non-binding vote shows the difficulties facing Gov. Paul LePage in winning approval of parts of his proposed budget.
By Kevin Miller, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
Members of a legislative committee are recommending against a LePage administration proposal to dismantle the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands and divide its responsibilities among other agencies.
The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee’s 12-1 vote against the proposal, while non-binding, is another indication of the challenge facing Gov. Paul LePage with some aspects of his budget, even among fellow Republicans.
The committee’s recommendation will eventually be passed along to the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Committee as it begins making adjustments to the governor’s two-year budget plan.
LePage proposed dissolving the Bureau of Parks and Lands as part of a reorganization of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Oversight of Maine’s state parks would transfer to a Bureau of Conservation while the Maine Forest Service would take over management of the state’s 600,000-plus acres of “public reserved lands.”
LePage has already appointed Maine Forest Service Director Doug Denico to oversee forestry operations on state-owned lands.
Administration officials have argued that the consolidation would improve operations by bringing foresters from the bureau and the Maine Forest Service together under the same roof.
But the plan quickly ran into opposition from lawmakers and interest groups. Critics questioned whether the Maine Forest Service – which works primarily with private, commercial timberland owners on land management as well as pest and fire control – would be as committed to managing state-owned lands for outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat.
Those concerns are being driven, in part, by opposition to LePage’s plan to increase logging on the 400,000 acres of public reserved lands open to timber harvesting from the current target of 141,500 cords of wood to 180,000 cords per year.
“We took this seriously, but there was no evidence that it would work. It didn’t pass muster,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, a Winthrop Democrat who co-chairs the committee.
Hickman said he and other lawmakers listened to constituents who overwhelmingly opposed the idea. Hickman also said the state just combined the Department of Agriculture with the Department of Conservation two years ago and “the ink on the merger isn’t even dry.”
“I was reluctant to do it because I was afraid we’d focus too much on timber harvesting and forestry,” Hickman said. “Both of those things are important to our economy. But food is also important to our economy. Our parks and lands are important to our economy.”
The Bureau of Parks and Lands does not need legislative approval to increase timber harvests but does require lawmakers to approve LePage’s plan to use $5 million in logging revenues to pay for programs that help Mainers convert to more efficient home heating systems. Under current law, all timber revenues flow back to the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
Staff Writer Steve Mistler contributed to this report.