by Cathy Johnson, NRCM North Woods Project Director and Senior Staff Attorney
Good afternoon Senator Jackson, Representative Dill, and members of the Committee. My name is Cathy Johnson. I live in Alna and am here today on behalf of the 12,000 members and supporters of the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) in opposition to L.D. 837, An Act To Clarify the Laws Establishing the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
NRCM continues to have serious questions about the value of the merger, which was conditionally enacted last session. No one has yet articulated any benefit to the programs within the Department of Conservation from this merger. Rather than benefits, this proposed merger threatens the fundamental purpose of the Department of Conservation. The merger has brought uncertainty to hard-working state employees. Many people both within and outside of state government fear that this merger will allow funds and staff that previously have been earmarked for conservation programs to be siphoned off for other purposes.
Some of these inter-related issues are addressed in the FY14-15 budget. Others are found in this bill. Members of the ACF Committee have requested a detailed organizational chart of the merged DACF. We strongly support that request.
This chart would better inform all of us about the purpose of the merger. In addition to an organizational chart, we strongly recommend that the Department provide a one page summary showing how many positions from the prior Department of Conservation have been eliminated, how many new positions have been created in the new Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, and what programs are affected by these eliminations and creations and how they are affected.
The most egregious provision in L.D. 837 is the proposal in Sec. 10 to change the mission of the Department of Conservation from one of conservation, protection and stewardship of our state’s mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, wildlife and other natural areas into a mission of natural resource extraction and economic development. The mission statement adopted last year already moved away from the original conservation purposes of the Department. The amendment proposed this year goes the rest of the way to totally transforming the purpose of the Department.
This narrower focus on purely economic development overlooks an essential function of the DACFâto steward the entirety of Maine’s natural resources for their own sake, not simply for their economic benefits. While programs such as the Land for Maine’s Future Program, the State Park system, the Maine Natural Areas Program, the Ecological Reserve system, Geological Services, the Land Use Planning Commission and other programs within the Department of Conservation often provide economic benefits to the state, providing economic benefit is not their primary purpose.
The revised mission embodies a perspective that natural resources are only valuable if they are used by people. There is no recognition that wildlife habitat, for instance, is important, even if the habitat provides no economic return. The revised mission suggests that public land acquisition is no longer part of the state’s policies, despite the long standing and overwhelming public support that the voters have shown for public land over the last 35 years every time they have been asked to vote for Land for Maine’s Future bonds. We strongly urge you to reject the proposed amendment and to look to the mission of the Department prior to last year’s changes for guidance on the purposes of the Department.
We are unclear exactly what is intended by Sec. 11 of the bill. To require a Commissioner to have “expertise, experience or understanding of a range of issues relating to agriculture, conservation and forestry,” if interpreted literally, would seem to disqualify most candidates. Indeed, the current Commissioner has extensive agricultural expertise, experience and understanding of issues but has acknowledged repeatedly that he has no experience, expertise or understanding of conservation issues. Would he therefore be unqualified under the proposed language?
We are also concerned about Sec. 12 (B) of the bill which requires the new Deputy Commissioner of Conservation and Forestry to have “expertise or experience in land management and conservation, including forest management.” Does this provision require that only a trained forester with forest management expertise or experience can be the Deputy responsible for conservation issues? We urge that the language be amended to remove the last three words and to change “and” to “or.”
B. The Deputy Commissioner of Conservation and Forestry, who must have expertise or experience in land management or conservation,
We also urge that the sunset provision in Sec. 16 of the bill be retained. While it may be useful to clarify what the Legislature would like to see before going forward with the merger, given the widespread skepticism that exists about whether this merger is indeed a good idea from the perspective of the Department of Conservation programs, retaining the option to pull the plug if it is not benefitting both agencies is a valuable tool.
Finally, one provision which is not, but should be, in this bill relates to the Land for Maine’s Future Program. We urge that the position of the director for the Land for Maine’s Future be reinstated. Once the governor releases the LMF bond funds that have already been approved by the voters, this program will be overseeing the use of close to $10 million. A program with this financial responsibility deserves a full time director, as it had for over two decades. Currently, Deputy Commissioner Ed Meadows is serving as interim director. With Deputy Commissioner Meadows’s numerous responsibilities, the LMF program surely is not receiving the adequate oversight and programmatic direction it deserves.
NRCM urges you to give the conditional merger serious scrutiny. If you find that it does provide benefits for the state, we urge you to make the changes suggested above before passing this bill.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment.