Good morning Senator Rotundo, Representative Brannigan and Members of the Committee. My name is Cathy Johnson. I am a resident of Alna. I am here today speaking on behalf of the Natural Resources Council of Maine in support of additional funding for the Department of Conservation.
Among many other duties, the Department of Conservation is responsible for ensuring that Maine’s forests are healthy and are harvested at a sustainable rate ensuring that both woods-based and manufacturing jobs continue indefinitely into the future. DOC is responsible for the management of Maine’s State Parks and Public Lands which are Meccas for Maine families looking for places to hike, swim, fish and paddle, and magnets for out-of-state visitors seeking the beauty and serenity of Maine’s natural landscapes. The Department oversees land management and evaluates proposed development in the “unorganized townships,” that half of the state that makes up the largest undeveloped block of forest land east of the Mississippi.
In short, the Department of Conservation is responsible for protecting the land base that is the foundation of both our forest products industry and our natural resource based tourism economy. If the forest dies, is poorly harvested or is fragmented by inappropriate development, or if the natural beauty, serenity, trails and water access points in our parks and public lands are degraded, our forest products and tourism industries will suffer.
Most of the Department of Conservation’s work is done by people – forest and park rangers, scientists and permit analysts – and thus the vast majority of DOC’s budget is in its personnel. Since 1992, Maine’s Department of Conservation has gone from 863 employees to FY 05’s total of 603 employees – a decrease of 30%. The budget you have before you continues that downward slide, cutting the staff to 585 by FY 07.
This trend must be reversed. DOC has assumed a number of additional duties since 1992 and needs an increasing budget, not a decreasing one. Maine could have a world class parks and public lands system that attracts thousands and thousands of visitors to the state providing jobs all across the state, in rural areas where our spectacular landscapes are found, but only if the Department is adequately funded to manage the parks and public lands to that standard.
We support the proposed fee on burning permits. A $5.00 fee is a very reasonable charge and it appears that the proposed on line system will be easier for most people. Permits will be available at any time of day or night. No longer will people have to drive around town trying to track down the town warden.
However, this budget before you also proposes to begin harvesting trees in State Parks. We think this is a serious mistake. The suggested reason for this cutting, in addition to generating revenue which is not a reason allowed under the statutes governing state parks, is that they would be demonstration forests. A quick review of Maine forests turned up no fewer than 49 demonstration forests in Maine. In addition, timber harvesting takes place on all of our public lands and has been certified as being consistent with the highest standards of forest management by the independent Forest Stewardship Council. Maine citizens see high quality forest harvesting any time they visit our public lands. On the other hand, less than 2% of Maine’s forests are left in their natural condition, unaltered by logging. What we need in Maine is more areas that are unharvested. We do not need to take unharvested areas such as our State Parks and start logging them.
Starting demonstration forests also incurs a long term liability in that they will only serve their purpose as demonstration forests if they have an ongoing education program. Given all the other existing demonstration forests, this is not a spending priority for the Department now and would be a future liability which the Department should not take on.
Rather than harvesting in State Parks, we urge this committee to look for other revenue sources that will support not just level funding for the Department, but increased funding. We believe that there are multiple opportunities to generate income through tourism related activities. Two that we would suggest are: a rise in the meals and lodging tax and a fee on rental cars. A substantial amount of the revenues generated through either of these sources would be paid by visitors to our state who are enjoying the natural resources the Department is protecting and managing.
The Department has done an incredible job with the limited resources it has been given over the last decade. It has a staff of extremely dedicated employees who have taken on more and more work, even as their numbers have dwindled. But this trend cannot continue. Increasing funding to the Department of Conservation would ensure that the resource is adequately protected and managed, and would enhance the forest products and recreation based economies of the state. It is time to fully fund the Department so that they can do the world class job they need and want to do.
Thank you for your attention.