Last session, over the objections of some environmental groups, the legislature merged the Department of Agriculture with the Department of Conservation, creating the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Conservation. And while many are unhappy about some aspects of the merger, including some who supported it, few want to re-examine the issue this year.
At least, that’s my prediction, even though two environmental groups made a pitch yesterday to review the merger. LD 39, sponsored by Representative Anthony Edgecomb, would create a task force that could, in the words of Eliza Donoghue of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, “determine whether the merged department has provided, at the same or better level, the protection and management of our natural resources and public lands formerly provided by the Department of Conservation.”
Clearly, NRCM believes the merger has not been good for the conservation cause. “NRCM had and continues to have significant concerns that the merger would lead and is leading to significant adverse changes in the former Department of Conservation programs and funding.”
Maine Audubon chimed in to support the bill. “We also suggest examining the funding of the various programs within the new Department,” said Audubon’s lobbyist, Jenn Gray, “and determine whether these programs are receiving the same, more or less funding than under the former two department structure. A look at the staffing for the programs would be helpful too,” she testified.
Interestingly, The Nature Conservancy of Maine disagreed with NRCM and Maine Audubon. Tom Abello, TNC’s Senior Policy Advisor, presented what I thought was the best testimony of the day. Abello pointed out that TNC supported the merger and worked with the legislative committee, the Maine Forest Products Council, the Maine Farm Bureau, and others to “ensure key conservation elements of both Departments remained strong.”
Abello explained, very clearly, the advantages his organization saw in the merger. “The Conservancy felt that a combined agency could better address future natural resource challenges, such as water resource issues, invasive species, and conservation funding. Moreover, a combined agency could gain efficiencies by sharing GIS data, staff, science and research and coordinating grant proposals.”
And he got right to the point as to why TNC opposes LD 39. “We believe the establishment of an outside task force would be too complicated and costly,” Abello testified. “Additionally, this bill is premature as the merger took effect only 18 months ago and more time is needed to work out the details before a full task force-led review is necessary.”
But then he got to the real heart of the matter, a new proposal by Governor LePage to move the Public Lands Bureau into the Bureau of Forestry, a very controversial proposal that both NRCM and Maine Audubon also raised in their testimony.
“The Nature Conservancy currently opposes this further merger for four reasons,” said Abello, “the multiple use mandate at Public Lands, the loss of coordinated conservation and recreation management across state parks and public lands and the elimination of key forestry, policy and science positions.”
The fourth reason Abellow raised was that “the State removed its Public Lands from management by the Bureau of Forestry in the 1970s and set up the Bureau of Parks and Lands. What has changed to warrant reversing this earlier decision?”
Good question! And one that must be answered if the Governor’s new proposal is to move forward. His proposed merger is in his budget proposal, so it will be debated at the Appropriations Committee.
Patrick Strauch of the Maine Forest Products Council also testified against LD 39, but acknowledged some problems with the merger. “There are some bottlenecks affecting the system” he noted. When asked what the bottlenecks are, he said there are “too many layers” at the combined department. Strauch favors an “update” from the Department to the legislature. And he expressed the hope of many when he said, “I think things going forward could improve.”
Abello also noted that TNC “works with 3 of the 4 bureaus and sees problems in communications. That could be improved.”
Commissioner Walt Whitcomb testified “neither for nor against” even though his testimony clearly was opposed to the bill. “This bill is counterproductive for several reasons,” he began. And then he listed all the reasons! I kidded Walt afterward about this. But really, a lot of Commissioners use this same tactic, claiming to be neutral but testifying as to all the reasons a bill is bad.
The Senate chair of the Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee, Peter Edgecomb (coincidentally the grandfather of the bill’s sponsor), questioned Whitcomb about the benefits of the merger. After Whitcomb named a few benefits, he concluded with a statement that made me laugh.
”Making things go well is an annoyance for some,” he exclaimed. I guess that put NRCM and Maine Audubon in their place!
I think he may have given away another annoyance too, when he said, “We feel that staff time is more important for constituent services rather than continuous self-analysis.” I’m pretty sure he meant “continuous legislative analysis!”