HOLDEN, Maine — Maine’s conservation commissioner said Wednesday that he believes state government and the diverse groups invested in the future of Maine’s vast natural resources can do a better job balancing preservation and economic development by focusing on their mutually agreed upon goals.
“Maybe opposites do attract,” said Bill Beardsley, commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation. “Maybe there is more opportunity there than we think there is.”
Speaking to a group of several dozen people at the Fields Pond Audubon Center, Beardsley discussed the future of the Land Use Regulation Commission, the LePage administration’s attitude toward energy diversification and the proposal to merge his department with the Department of Agriculture.
Beardsley is co-chairman of the task force charged with recommending ways to reform LURC, the state agency that oversees planning and permitting on more than 10 million acres in Maine. While acknowledging that the group — which holds its next meeting Thursday in Ashland — has substantial work to do yet, the commissioner said the membership agrees that Maine needs strong, statewide standards as well as land use planning.
“There is an awful lot more agreement than there isn’t,” he said.
But Beardsley said he and the LePage administration believe LURC has focused more heavily on preservation and protection of the Maine woods than on allowing economic development within the Unorganized Territory. He said landowners and local residents need to feel their voices are being heard in decisions.
On the issue of land conservation, Beardsley said the governor is interested in protecting river corridors, trails and other natural gems as opposed to pursuing large-scale conservation projects.
“He is less focused on landscapes and vast easements,” Beardsley said. “He says what we can really afford is corridors and these gems of places.”
As an example of balancing protection with jobs, Beardsley said an aging lobster boat in Cutler harbor may be picturesque. But he believes it would be a loss culturally and economically to the state if that boat was not started the next morning by a local fisherman.
Likewise, black spruce near Saddleback Mountain are important both from an ecological and economic standpoint, he said.
“There is an elemental loss if we don’t find a way to tie together the Maine conservation ethos and Maine people,” he said.
Addressing the issue of consolidating natural resources departments, Beardsley portrayed the LePage administration’s proposal to merge the Department of Conservation and the Department of Agriculture as more realistic than previous proposals to merge up to five departments into one “superagency.”
The two departments already share many staff and handle similar issues because in Maine forestry is a type of agriculture, he said.
“We are not doing this to save money,” he said. “We are doing it because it makes sense. We think we can do a better job in terms of coordination and economies of scale.”
During a question-and-answer session at the end of the talk, Beardsley was asked about Roxanne Quimby’s proposal to create a North Woods national park east of Baxter State Park using 70,000 acres of her own land.
The commissioner pointed out that LePage has not taken an official position on Quimby’s push for a federal feasibility study of her park proposal. He predicted, however, that the recent purchase of the two paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket would lessen support for Quimby’s plan, which he suggested some may have viewed as a last resort if the mills were scrapped.
Beardsley was invited to the Fields Pond Audubon Center by Maine Audubon and the Appalachian Mountain Club.