AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage announced Thursday that he wants to merge the Departments of Conservation and Agriculture in an effort to better serve the farming, conservation and forestry sectors and enrich the economy.
LePage, who long has touted farming and forestry as crucial to rebuilding Maine’s economy, said his administration is writing a bill that will be presented to the Legislature in its next regular session, which begins in January.
“These two departments are very similar and today divide funding resources from the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” said LePage in a press release. “It makes sense for these two agencies to work closer together toward economic prosperity.”
Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb and Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley reacted favorably to the announcement, according to LePage’s press release.
“Conservation, state parks, public access to Maine’s great outdoors, farming and forestry and Maine’s physical landscape are central components of Maine’s iconic brand,” said Beardsley in the press release. “They are inseparable as we strive to revitalize and enhance Maine’s natural resource economy.”
Whitcomb said in a telephone interview Thursday that there is extensive crossover in the missions and activities of the two departments. He said merging them would follow the model of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which includes the U.S. Forest Service — and numerous other states. One benefit of the merger is that the Conservation Department’s marketing resources can be put to work for farmers — which he said is something that for budgetary reasons has been whittled out of the Agriculture Department.
“There are lots of people out there wanting to do things that we just don’t have the capacity to participate with,” he said. “This is a surgical strike. The goal isn’t to cut positions. The goal isn’t to lose any identity. The governor clearly believes that these industries are some of the strongest selling points we have in this state. We think we can do better in terms of being a dominant force in the Eastern United States marketplace.”
LePage said he has the support of many farming and forestry leaders for his proposal, though he clearly hasn’t convinced everyone. Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said he sees the merger as akin to a shell game.
“It seems to me that the critical issue is not so much structure but the question of whether there will be more or less resources allocated to the functions handled by these departments,” said Libby. “Since 1992 there have only been one or two years when those agencies have seen an increase in funding. A merger doesn’t solve the problem of chronic underfunding.”
Libby said the most noticeable loss has been the reduction of marketing and finance experts working on behalf of farmers. He also said he fears farmers would lose some of their clout under the new arrangement.
“Will this mean less of a voice and less access to the governor for people to talk about agriculture and forestry?” said Libby. “That has always been a major caution flag from the entire natural resources sector.”
Clark Granger, a Christmas tree farmer from Woolwich who worked for the Department of Conservation for 37 years, said he supports the idea. He said the difference between LePage’s merger proposal and the similar efforts of Gov. John Baldacci, who unsuccessfully attempted to combine the Departments of Agriculture, conservation, Marine Resources and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, is that LePage limited his proposal to agencies with similar missions: protecting, fostering and marketing things that grow.
“If you’re a forester, you want to be able to grow your trees and use your land and trees for your primary purpose,” said Granger. “Agriculture is very much the same way. Farmers own their land and they want to be able to manage it.”
Another crossover between the two industries, according to Granger, is that some 50 percent of land owned by farmers in Maine is forested.
Jon Olson, executive secretary of the Maine Farm Bureau, a nonprofit organization of farmers that opposed Baldacci’s merger scheme but supports LePage’s, agreed about the similarities between forestry and farming.
“We think this makes good sense,” he said. “These are all producers of natural resources products.”
The Natural Resources Council of Maine opposes the plan.
“We are not persuaded that this would be a good idea because it seems to suggest that Maine’s woods, waters and wildlife should be treated like crops and readied for market,” said Cathy Johnson, the group’s north woods project director, in a press release. “Maine people strongly support the conservation of our resources and this appears to be a strategy to bury that important government responsibility deep within another bureaucracy.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the administration still was working out the details of how the merger would work — such as which commissioner would be eliminated, for example — but said a key part of the plan will be to consolidate or eliminate duplicated staff and services. However, she said cost savings are not the primary driver. In this fiscal year, the Agriculture Department’s overall budget is $47.7 million while Conservation’s is $48.6 million, according to the State Budget Office. The total state budget in 2012 is more than $3 billion.
“The cost savings may come in the long-term,” said Bennett. “This is about increasing rural economic opportunities for folks in these industries. We’re looking to promote all of them.”