June 22, 2018
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Farmers, foresters divided on agriculture, conservation merger plan

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — Foresters, university officials, landowners and recreationists who spoke Friday at the first in a series of stakeholder meetings about the proposed merger of two state departments said, for the most part, they were willing to accept a new government structure but were worried some groups might be overlooked in the shuffle.

Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources Commissioner Walt Whitcomb and Department of Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley presented fluid plans for the union, which would create a Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. They said public input provided at meetings leading up to the next legislative session would play a role in shaping the new entity.

“We’re here to learn what you want us to do,” Beardsley said to the gathering of about 50 stakeholders at the University of Maine.

Gov. Paul LePage formally proposed the merger in February, saying it would make the agencies more efficient and better able to meet the state’s needs.

Under the current plan, the merger would create a department led by one commissioner, who would appoint two deputy commissioners. The divisions of the department would report to the deputy commissioners and, LePage has argued, work more closely to be good stewards of Maine’s natural resources and give the state a unified voice in Washington, D.C.

The agriculture commissioner at the time of the merger would serve as commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

David Bell of the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission commended the plan. He said the state’s blueberry output has the potential to double with the right investments and backing from the state.

“We need the support of state government to realize our potential,” Bell said. “We also need state government to change and innovate with us.”

Mary Ellen Camire, a professor in the University of Maine’s food science and human nutrition program, said she was concerned that the structure of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry might mean there will be fewer specialists within the department.

She said faculty and staff within UMaine’s food science program would be willing to offer support with grant applications or research assistance if a division of the new agency found itself short on manpower or expertise.

“Our department is here to help, and we look forward to seeing what develops in the future,” Camire said.

Steve Schley, president of Pingree Associates Inc., which acts as an agent for Pingree family forests, said he was concerned that one commissioner might not be able to handle the workload that would stem from the merger of the two agencies.

Considering all the parties and agencies involved in Maine’s conservation, natural resources, food and farming sectors, “can the one person really be able to do it all — to know it all?” Schley asked.

Maxwell McCormack, research professor emeritus of forest resources at UMaine, who said he was speaking only on his own behalf, argued that the Maine Forest Service should be elevated in government hierarchy because of an increasing need for action and oversight of forests.

He said Maine’s forests, which cover 85 percent of the state, are at risk and the number of qualified forest managers is on the decline. Pests, including the emerald ash borer, present an increasing threat.

The reorganization could give the Forest Service less influence within the department as a whole, McCormack said.

“We should not merge the two departments,” he said.

The next stakeholder meeting is set for 1-4 p.m. Tuesday, June 26, at the Maine Forest Products Council, 535 Civic Center Drive, in Augusta. Another meeting will be scheduled for early August in Caribou, but details have not yet been set.

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