How state government is growing Maine’s natural resources economy

Colleen Teerling (second from right), Maine Forest Service entomologist, demonstrates how the Emerald Ash Borer trap works during a press conference at the Bolton Hill Facility in Augusta on Thursday, May 3, 2012.
Colleen Teerling (second from right), Maine Forest Service entomologist, demonstrates how the Emerald Ash Borer trap works during a press conference at the Bolton Hill Facility in Augusta on Thursday, May 3, 2012.
Posted April 23, 2013, at 12:58 p.m.

Maine’s image is built around our natural resources. These resources offer outstanding, self-renewing, economic and recreation opportunities. Every day across Maine, we benefit from unmatched outdoor visitor destinations, New England’s largest, most diversified food production and forest growth that continually exceeds harvest.

The Maine Legislature in 2012 recognized the need to both protect and enhance Maine’s natural resource economy in the face of declining public financial support by creating the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Such action was driven by factors including a nearly 40-percent reduction in general fund dollars available to the former Agriculture Department in the last 10 years.

As legislators review this week the early days of the newly created agency, they will assess department initiatives to maximize the sustainable opportunities of our vast natural resources, as they also try to understand the financial complexities surrounding the work of our engaged staff. As one Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committee member recently reminded us, “Trees don’t vote, make sure you continue to care for the future of our natural resources.”

Maine’s unique alignment of department staff matches our unique landscape. We do have many more trees than people, and we have natural places that should not be disrupted. But we also have a tremendous, barely tapped capacity to grow healthy food to feed an entire region.

Maine’s efforts to reposition our natural resource agency have not gone unnoticed. We have created a natural approach in Maine government to allocate scarce public services to the many citizens who care about and wisely use our outdoor resources.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack frequently encourages all states to grow their rural economy by strengthening the historic linkage between agriculture and forestry while connecting with rural recreation opportunities. During his recent visit to Maine, I discussed with him Maine’s innovative approach and how other states are likely to follow a similar path.

The new Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is organizing to meet its broad range of responsibilities to citizens in every corner of Maine. Our department covers: forests, fields, lakes, state parks, beaches, submerged lands (including three miles out to sea), minerals, forest fires, rivers, animal welfare, invasive species, food safety, land use planning, livestock, fairs, trails, milk and many other interests.

The department’s professional staff assist with tasks as wide ranging as municipal land use planning, providing guidance on private forest land improvement and creating networks to assist beginning farmers. The developing satellite imagery within the Geology Division has applications for forest harvest verification, agriculture crop water usage, hiking trail placement and the high altitude detection of damage from oncoming invasive insects.

The department takes seriously our responsibility to protect our land resources. We work with coastal communities to address shore land erosion, help growers recognize the best crop rotation to keep prime soils in place, advise on forest road placement to minimize stream sedimentation and carefully design Conservation Corps-built trails to protect that wilderness we seek to visit.

Agriculture, conservation and forestry represents a very well connected equation that divides 770 public servants throughout our 17 million acres of productive timberland; 8,100 families producing an agricultural crop; 50-plus state parks, historic sites and wilderness areas; and access points to hundreds of lakes and 3,000 miles of shoreline.

Maine’s maple season and the entire maple industry are both illustrations of the public value of the new Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The Agricultural Resource Division promoted the 30th anniversary of Maine Maple Sunday and Gov. Paul LePage’s annual tree tapping on the Blaine House lawn. Our Division of Parks and Public Lands worked on leasing agreements to increase the number of maple trees that could be tapped. Our forest rangers identified the issue of illegal tree tapping on private property and brought it to everyone’s attention. That story became an international talking point about Maine.

The maple syrup industry taps a natural resource, turns it into a marketable product and then employs Maine workers through its sale and distribution. That industry demonstrates how Maine can have multiple uses of its natural resources and how a wood lot has an array of benefits, including maple syrup, timber production, recreation and open space. Wood lots also need protection from fires, diseases and invasive pests. And the maple syrup industry also has huge growth potential to create more jobs.

With a unified department, and all of these inter-related functions under one roof, we were able to combine efforts to promote the Maine maple syrup industry when the opportunity arose. For almost a month, the focus was on Maine’s maple syrup industry, not on our competitors.

We are learning to work within the new Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to apply public resources in the most effective support for the people in our natural resource economy.

Walter E. Whitcomb is commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

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