Political hack or professional manager – Who will Governor LePage appoint as Parks and Lands Director?

Will HarrisHe must have known it was the end of the road. Will Harris, the cautious and capable Director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, and one of the very few hold-overs from the Baldacci to the LePage Administration, spoke with remarkable candor and courage in late-March when questioned by legislators about the governor’s plan to harvest more timber on public lands and use the money for public heating assistance programs.

As I reported at the time, “Harris serves as the Director of Maine’s Parks and Public Lands, a gubernatorially appointed position. He can be fired without reason by the governor, making his remarks all the more astonishing. I haven’t checked this morning to see if Will is still on the job!”

Well, he did last a bit longer. But last week, Will’s retirement, effective at the end of this month, was announced. Insiders tell me he was forced out, but he must have been thinking about retirement that day in March.

When I read Mario Moretti’s Bangor Daily News account that morning after the legislative hearing, I was honestly amazed that anyone in this Administration dared to challenge the governor. Amazed, yes. But not surprised because Harris is hard-working, honest, and dedicated to his Bureau of Parks and Lands. There was no other way to answer the question, really.

A bipartisan majority of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee rejected the governor’s proposal, after Harris told the committee that his bureau had been operating in “reduced budget mode.”  Moretti also reported that, when asked whether he felt the bureau could afford to see any extra revenue diverted to external purposes, Harris was diplomatic.

“We’re … mindful that we’re working in an administration that has policy objectives,” Harris said. “But if this were just me, and what I’d like to do, there are a bunch of things we’d like to do,” such as road maintenance and work to increase access to public lands.

Diplomatic – yes. Courageous – for sure. And now, on his way out.

Who Is Next?

Many are worried that the important position of Director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands will now go to a LePage crony and political hack.

Every Maine citizen has a stake in this, because our public lands and state parks belong to all of us, and most of us get great enjoyment from them.

BPL’s mission is “to protect and manage the natural and cultural resources under our care in order to: Offer a wide range of recreational and educational opportunities, and provide environmental and economic benefits for present and future generations.”

Over 700,000 acres are managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Conservation easements and leases bring the total land area managed to over 2 million acres. These lands are managed for a variety of resource values including: Recreation, Cultural and Historic preservation, Wildlife, and Timber. This job demands a good manager, someone who can balance the competing interests of outdoor recreationists, a person who is first and foremost a conservationist.

The Governor was reportedly very unhappy to lose his proposal to substantially increase the harvest of trees on public lands, and gave Will Harris a royal chewing out (Harris was not the one who told me this). So you can bet the Governor will be looking for a new BPL Director who is committed to reviving that proposal should the governor be re-elected.

Someday soon I hope to interview Harris – probably after he’s safely out of the Bureau. His long career, exceptional dedication, and string of accomplishments deserves to be recognized and applauded.

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.