Will Departments of Agriculture and Conservation Ever Merge? Maybe Not!

The nonmerger of the Agriculture and Conservation Departments continues apace. Commissioner Walt Whitcomb, who was selected to lead the new Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry after the legislature approved Governor Paul LePage’s plan to merge the two state agencies, has predicted that it will take years to implement the merger, while legislators have expressed frustration about the slow pace.

In fact, although the merger became official last August 30, nothing has yet been merged, primarily because no money was appropriated for the task. They haven’t even been able to merge the two websites of these departments after Whitcomb received a cost estimate of $50,000 for that job.

In my testimony against the merger, I asked legislators how much it would cost to merge these two departments, and predicted it would not be cheap. I urged them to insist on an honest and accurate fiscal note presenting the real merger costs, and asked them to probe the details to make sure all costs were accounted for.

They did neither, probably because the merger would not have been approved if it included a need for funding.

Legislators did post a U-Turn in the middle of the merger, adding language to the bill that requires the 126th legislature to affirm the merger. That language, crafted by Representative Ken Fredette (recently elected Republican House leader), has been challenged by some who claim it doesn’t actually require a vote of the legislature, but the language – and Rep. Fredette’s goal – are quite clear.

The merger is very much in jeopardy, as various interests mull over their options. While neither the farming nor the forestry industries are entirely comfortable with the situation, most groups representing farmers and forest landowners are not interested in returning to their separate agencies.

However, there is talk in some quarters about moving the Bureau of Park and Lands out of the merged agency. BPL would become a separate department or might merge with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

No matter what legislators do, the lack of funding will keep any merger or mergers from effectively happening.

Staff Suggestions

Commissioner Whitcomb solicited merger ideas from his staff last June. He didn’t get much response, but I have all ten responses in hand and some good ideas were suggested, ranging from the simple – sharing of equipment – to a complex proposal submitted by staff members Stephanie Gilbert, Elizabeth Hertz, Andrew Shultz, and Jan Santerre.

Matthew Randall suggested “information sharing,” noting “the forestry division staff is aware of carbon sources (sawdust, shavings, chips, etc.) which can be utilized by their agriculture counterparts for the composting of mortalities (dead animals).”

Skip Varney, the Director of Engineering and Real Property at the Bureau of Parks and Lands, thought the services of his staff should be offered to the Agriculture and Forestry Divisions.

David Rocque of the Soil and Water Conservation Districts offered an interesting history of his program, starting in 1941, and noted how connected District staff members are to their local agricultural communities. He provided ten findings and suggestions, reporting that “there is little or no statewide coordination of the training/information/inspection related to soil and water conservation amongst state agencies resulting in inefficiencies and limiting effectiveness.”

Rocque suggested that SWCDs could provide this training “in a more coordinated and therefore effective and efficient manner. SWCD’s… could provide this delivery in a more cost effective and unified manner.”

The proposal submitted by Gilbert, Hertz, Shultz, and Santerre is ambitious and impressive. Labeled “Mobilizing Multiple State Agencies to Support Local Entrepreneurship in Natural Resources,” this four-page plan includes a mission statement, specific goals and objectives, and an actions list, along with examples of what might be achieved.

Gregg Hesslein, Saco River District Ranger, reported, “Vacant positions make the workload heavy and limit our action capacity to complaints and our customers. We now have four (staff) where we had 6 for 110 towns.”

The only suggestion submitted without a name suggested creation of a long-range plan for Parks and Lands. “It is surprising that a department with so many planners has a bureau with no long range plan. Having measurable goals and objectives would benefit the staff and give them better direction, especially with the poor communication currently flowing from the bureau leadership downward.”

“Staff is currently often left without the knowledge of what they should be working toward on a daily basis and decisions are made in a reactive way rather than a proactive one.”

Ouch! Guess we can see why no name was attached to that one!

Chuck Simpson, BPL’s Eastern Region Lands Manager, reported a rumor that his staff might move back to its previous location in Old Town, from its current Bangor Facility, and offered good reasons why that would be a mistake.

And then there was Glenn Dochtermann’s suggestion, similar to the thoughts I expressed at the legislature’s public hearing on the merger. “I have been working in Parks and Conservation for over 40 years, in three different states… 14 years of that time in Maine… (and BPL) might have been better to be with IF&W and Marine Resources.”

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.