Environmental groups see worrisome mission change in LePage’s Conservation-Agriculture merger

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AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage says his proposed merger of the Agriculture and Conservation departments is designed to make farming and forestry pistons in the state’s economic engine. 

However, conservation groups worry that the governor’s plan focuses too much on the extraction of natural resources and too little on protection. 

LePage on Wednesday unveiled LD 1830, the legislative vehicle for the consolidation plan he hopes will be resolved by the end of the abbreviated legislative session.

The short timetable to pass the bill is a concern for environmental groups, particularly because the legislation will be routed through the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee, a panel still slogging through a controversial proposal to reform the Land Use Regulation Commission.

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But more worrisome, said Cathy Johnson of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, is that the merger would swap out the Department of Conservation’s current mission to protect public lands and wildlife habitat for one that “primarily if not solely” focuses on economic development. 

“We support natural-resources-based economic development, but we don’t want to see economic development become the exclusive role of the Department of Conservation,” said Johnson, adding that the guiding principles described in the legislation appear to exclude goals designed to protect and preserve the state’s natural resources. 

LePage was explicit in outlining his goals for the new agency. In a written statement he mentioned “economy” several times, saying the merger was not just a cost-saving proposal, but one that would create jobs.

“Farming and forestry are an important part of Maine’s heritage, and can play a significant role in our economic engine,” LePage said. “These industries are important to Maine’s future, and it is important we maximize the potential of our natural-resource-based economy to provide jobs and economic prosperity to Maine people.”

Although the proposal could leave one of them without a job, Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley and Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb both supported the plan. If the legislation passes, one of the commissioner positions will be eliminated.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said it was too early to tell what the future held for Beardsley and Whitcomb, but that both commissioners were working full force to support the merger.

If it passes, the plan will save $139,980 in fiscal year 2013 — the cost of one commissioner position. That appears to be the only savings and the only job cut.

The commissioner of the new agency will appoint two deputy commissioners whose duties will be to assist the commissioner “with agriculture, forestry and natural-resources-based economic development.”

The fact that upper-level staff will have no conservation directive underscored Johnson’s concerns about the mission change. She said the plan appeared to be a strategy to bury the Conservation Department’s mission to conserve Maine’s natural resources “deep within another bureaucracy.”

Johnson also questioned whether the Agriculture Committee would have enough time to adequately address the proposal. 

LePage originally announced the merger plan in November but withheld most details until Wednesday. 

Former Gov. John Baldacci twice tried — and twice failed — to merge the state’s natural resource agencies. LePage’s plan may stand a better chance because unlike previous merger proposals, he’ll likely only face opposition from environmental groups. 

Baldacci’s consolidation plan included Marine Resources and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which have vocal and effective lobbying organizations.

The Department of Conservation oversees the management, development and protection of some of Maine’s 17 million acres of forestland, 10.4 million acres of unorganized territory, 48 parks and historic sites and more than 590,000 acres of public-reserved and non-reserved land.

The agency includes the Maine Forest Service, the Land Use Regulation Commission and the Bureau of Parks and Lands.

The Department of Agriculture promotes farming activities while ensuring the safety and quality of the food supply. It includes the Milk Commission, the Board of Pesticide Control and the Harness Racing Commission.

smistler@sunjournal.com

This story has been corrected to add references to Cathy Johnson.

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