Natural Reconfiguration

Posted May 08, 2009, at 6:41 p.m.

Natural resources, we are often told, are one of Maine’s most important assets. If this is true, it is past time for the state to update the way it manages and promotes these resources.

LD 1453, which is the subject of a public hearing scheduled before the State and Local Government Committee on Monday, offers one way to do this. The bill would merge the state’s four natural resource-related departments — Conservation, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Marine Resources and Agriculture — into one. This would save money — about $3 million over two years — and, more important, lead to more coherent and continuous planning and implementation of natural resource policies. It would also reduce duplication of work, services and infrastructure.

If this bill, which was introduced at the behest of the governor, goes too far for lawmakers, they should at least implement many of the recommendations of last year’s task force on the topic. Two other bills, LD 538 and LD 1270 incorporate some of these ideas by reconfiguring some of the agencies.

For those who called for more structural changes in state government to reduce government spending, this is a direction they should encourage. It should also appeal to those who worry that these departments have to make do with too little money. Funding for these agencies has shrunk as a portion of the budget. In 1981, more than 4 percent of the budget was devoted to natural resources agencies. In 2006, it was about 2 percent. Using this money as wisely as possible is imperative.

The task force, which was made up of lawmakers, department heads and representatives of sportsmen’s, agricultural and conservation groups, recommended much more joint work between these agencies.

For example, it called for issuing all licenses and permits, such as for commercial fishing and recreational fishing, through one system. It also suggested having one entity acquire and manage boat launches and public lands. This makes sense from a customer-service perspective and will reduce duplicative effort.

Another practical suggestion is to coordinate the marketing of Maine’s outdoors with its products. Bringing the Department of Tourism into this mix, to sell recreational experiences alongside Maine products, is likely to pay more dividends than a piecemeal approach.

The committee did not agree on proposals to restructure the four departments, although proposals to reconfigure them got a lot of attention. LD 1270 follows on this work by putting a Department of Public Lands and Water in charge of state-owned lands and water access, while giving the Department of Agriculture responsibility for aquaculture, among other changes.

LD 538 would combine the Department of Marine Resources and DIF&W.

Maine’s department structure has not been changed in three decades, while the pressures on the environment and natural resources have increased and changed. Sprawl has become a major concern, outdoor recreation has changed from primarily hunting and fishing, to hiking, kayaking and wildlife watching. Large-scale wind farms have gone from concept to reality.

To meet these new and changing challenges, Maine needs a coordinated approach to natural resource management. These bills offer a way to get there.

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