New warden service facility draws criticism

Posted Jan. 28, 2010, at 8:30 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:35 a.m.

TOWNSHIP 7 RANGE 17, Maine — A brand-new two-story camp constructed by wardens for their enforcement work at Baker Lake deep in the forest in northern Somerset County has come under fire from some legislators.

Since March 2009, wardens were assigned to construct a timber-framed camp to replace a rotting one-room cabin that floods during high water in this remote location about 96 miles north of Greenville.

When the exterior siding is installed and some further electrical work is done in the spring, an official said the state will have invested about $130,000 in the insulated 16-by-28-foot camp with its 8-foot partial wrap-around porch.

Constructed farther back from the waterway than the old cabin, the new camp has a metal roof, a knotty pine finish, snap-in wood flooring, manufactured cupboards, a propane stove and refrigerator, and two bedrooms that can hold eight people.

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Department of Conservation and Maine Warden Service field facilities and the conserved lands of Maine

“We now have a facility that our staff can take pride in and will meet their needs of having privacy, adequate space and facilities that are necessary for our expectations of them while on assignment in the region,” Col. Joel Wilkinson of the Maine Warden Service said recently.

Many state buildings
in ‘rough’ condition

In addition to the 34 camps and houses the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife owns on state-owned and leased lands, the state also owns 56 structures within the Department of Conservation that include staff housing and camps.

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But there are those who question the logic of spending the funds at a wilderness camp when the department is seeking fee increases from sportsmen.

“I’m very upset about it, to be honest with you,” said Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon. “We worked very hard through the budget to really try to keep down fees for the sportsmen.” Each time the department raises fees, there are fewer hunters, he said.

Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Roland “Danny” Martin staunchly defended the project, saying the camps in the state’s remote areas are critical to the department’s mission.

He said the license fee increases that started this month are unrelated to the new camp construction. The construction was funded through the general budget and was not a special appropriation.

The annual total budgets for the DIF&W were $35,905,812 in 2008, $37,618,407 in 2009 and $39,322,626 in the current fiscal year, 2010, which ends June 30. Of those amounts, the warden service expended $13,256,457 in 2008 and $14,954,982 in 2009. A total of $14,581,235 in expenditures was budgeted for 2010.

The new construction at Baker Lake was funded through the general operations maintenance building budget, Wilkinson said.

The warden service and DIF&W’s engineering department budgeted a total of $320,141 in fiscal year 2008 for the repair and maintenance of the warden camps and houses. In 2009, a total of $318,927 was budgeted, and in 2010 the figure is $278,210. The figures do not include labor costs.

“We try to budget out what it annually costs us for maintenance, upkeep and repairing facilities, and that’s the numbers we budget for,” Wilkinson said.

Used for enforcement

The Baker Lake camp, located on state land, is one of 34 “rustic” camps or houses owned by DIF&W and used for enforcement work by wardens, biologists and a variety of law enforcement officers, Wilkinson said.

He said he plans in the future to provide the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee an overview of all of the department’s camps, where they are located and whether they are on state-owned or leased land. He said he has no idea what the camps are valued at and wasn’t sure who had that information.

The buildings, in various stages of neglect, are located in areas that otherwise have no or limited residency options available, Wilkinson said. Staff members are temporarily assigned to these areas for high seasonal activities such as bird, moose and deer hunting, as well as fishing and extended search-and-rescue missions.

The new camp, which has a pit toilet and a gray water system, will allow the department to do more work in the region and provide a decent place to stay for wardens and those engaged in border patrol activities under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which provided the funds for a generator, Wilkinson explained.

When the camps are not in use for enforcement details, DIF&W policy allows employees free use of them for rest and relaxation, according to Wilkinson. Those who use the camps are asked to sign in on logbooks provided at each camp. If the camp visit is for relaxation, users are asked to do some general maintenance, such as mowing the lawn, he said.

Wilkinson, who was appointed in 2008 to lead the warden service, said he looked at the condition of the buildings owned by the department. “What we’d done in the past, pretty much, is put Band-Aids on a lot of the camps that were in less than, I would say, stellar condition,” he said.

Since an employee complained about the squalid living conditions of the Lily Bay camp in a grievance filed in 2005 that later turned into a lawsuit, Wilkinson said it seemed wise to improve one or two camps a year to bring them up to standards.

The warden who filed the lawsuit said the camp was infested by rodents and had no running water or indoor plumbing, and was unsanitary because of rodent droppings. That lawsuit was settled but the details were not released as part of the settlement.

Sympathetic to the employee’s concerns, Wilkinson said, “I’m not going to ask people to go stay in something that I don’t think is suitable.”

Because considerable planning had been done for the Baker Lake project before his advancement, Wilkinson chose to continue with that project, considering its condition.

The Baker Lake camp is “a stinky, old, nasty camp,” Wilkinson said.

A visit by the Bangor Daily News in late December found a cobbled-together rustic building not much larger than an ice-fishing shack. Inside, the decaying ceiling appears to be home to rodents even though mousetraps dotted the sagging floor.

Despite its condition, the camp, which will be removed in the spring, had much use. The weathered logbook inside the cabin recorded a mixture of work details and of getaways by former and current employees and other law enforcement officials.

Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, who stayed at the old camp for a fishing trip several years ago while in law enforcement, also inspected the old camp and the new camp last month.

Although the old camp is in less than stellar condition, Davis questioned spending more than $100,000 on a new camp at a time the department is seeking license fee increases. He said he doesn’t dispute the need for the camps, but spending that much money in this troubled economy bothers him.

“It’s disappointing, and I don’t care for it much,” he said.

Davis and Crafts, both members of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, said they should have been told about the new construction at Baker Lake by the department and not have learned about it from others.

Both said hunters who either saw wardens working on the camp or who learned about the new camp had complained to them.

Cost of camp disputed

When the BDN was told by a caller late last year that the new camp cost $300,000, inquiries were made of the department and Davis.

Upset over the rumored cost, Martin fired off a memo to Senate and House leaders in early December stating that the cost was less than $40,000.

Martin said recently the figure in his memo was based on what had been expended up to Dec. 10 and the expenditures have since been updated.

Ron Taylor, the DIF&W’s engineer, who devised a spreadsheet for the project, said that as of earlier this month, $71,192 had been spent by the warden service and the department’s engineering department for supplies.

In addition, 2,155 hours were spent over an eight-month period by department personnel on the camp at a cost of $43,230. That amount does not include benefits.

Other costs include $9,400 spent in 2007 to saw and size the timber frame, an estimated $2,500 for electrical work to be done in the spring and staff time to complete the exterior finish.

When completed, Taylor estimated, the total cost of the project — which includes the pit toilet, the permitting process, the construction of the camp and a small shed, and the demolition of the old camp —will be about $130,000.

Bids were solicited for the roof and the blown insulation in accordance with the state’s rules and policies, Taylor noted. Competitive costing was done on the project, he said.

Crafts said he believes the true cost of the Baker Lake camp, if the benefits are included, is in the $175,000 range.

Whatever the cost, Davis said, “It isn’t where I would have spent the money, that’s for darn sure.” He said he would have used the funds to address the department’s ongoing budget issues, such as the lack of funds for the printing of some lawbooks and the mileage restrictions wardens are under.

He also was critical of the hours wardens spent constructing the building. “They should have been out in the field doing what they were hired to do,” he said.

The wardens who worked on the camp during the slow seasons were available if needed in the field, Wilkinson said.

“If they needed to be in the field working on an active criminal investigation case, we never would take somebody off from that,” he said.

Between March 26 and Nov. 20 of last year, Wilkinson said game wardens worked 25 separate enforcement details in the Baker Lake region.

Having his wardens build the camp was an effort to save money, Wilkinson said, and he guessed it would have cost a lot more if the work had been farmed out.

“I am extremely proud of our staff’s efforts to improve this department facility by utilizing their talents to provide an excellent work location,” he added.

Those efforts also were applauded by other state officials. “I think Col. Wilkinson was innovative in the way he approached the repairs and bringing that up to an appropriate standard,” said David Farmer, Gov. John Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff. “We are always cognizant of the resources that we’re spending, how that money is being spent and the governor has taken a keen interest in finding as many efficiencies as possible.”

At the same time, the state has an obligation to provide proper facilities to employees who work to manage and protect the state’s multibillion-dollar natural resources industry, Farmer said.