AUGUSTA, Maine — Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb on Tuesday shared new details about a plan from Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to restructure the Maine Forest Service, including the elimination of about 12 to 13 forest ranger positions.
Whitcomb told a joint meeting of the Legislature’s budget writing Appropriations and Agriculture committees that the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation wants to separate rangers’ firefighting and law enforcement responsibilities. The department also wants two new positions to focus on resource protection in anticipation of another destructive infestation of spruce budworm or other invasive insect species that could spell trouble for Maine forests.
Whitcomb also said the total number of active positions that were being eliminated within the Department of Conservation was equal to 3.5 full-time jobs and that many of the reductions in staff proposed under the department’s 2016-2017 budget are vacant positions.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a member of the Appropriations Committee, questioned how a revamped Forest Service with just six full-time officers with law enforcement powers effectively would respond to the 4,000 calls per year for law violations currently handled by about 55 rangers.
“The numbers that we have used are far different than those than I see quoted in the press,” Whitcomb said.
He said the most common infraction rangers are called to deal with is littering.
“The number of calls that had to do with specific law enforcement are dramatically less than the number you just described and others I have seen in the press,” Whitcomb said.
The proposal to eliminate several rangers positions came on the heels of a legislative bid in 2014 to allow the state’s forest rangers to carry firearms, like other Maine law enforcement.
The Legislature sustained LePage’s veto of that bill, effectively killing it.
In his veto message, LePage said lawmakers failed to provide the funding to train the rangers and to provide weapons and ammunition for them.
Rangers cited the need to carry firearms because they often are in dangerous situations in the woods, including when they encounter illegal drug operations or are enforcing logging laws against hostile individuals who may be armed.
Ed Archer, president of the Maine State Law Enforcement Officers Association, the collective bargaining arm of rank-and-file rangers, told the Bangor Daily News earlier this month that his organization was blindsided by the budget proposal.
“We had no lead in to it, so that concerned us,” Archer said. “We had no idea [the administration was] going in that direction.”
Meanwhile, a Facebook page set up as the Maine Forest Rangers Association community has suggested the administration’s proposal to eliminate ranger positions is retaliation by LePage for the rangers seeking the ability to be armed. Whitcomb has refuted that allegation.
Among other things, Maine’s forest rangers are responsible for fighting wildfires, investigating forestry violations that include arson and timber theft and enforcing timber harvesting laws. They also inspect active logging operations.
Whitcomb said Tuesday a shift in focus would push the rangers’ law enforcement role to the new law enforcement officers and that efforts were under way to put rangers in more a coordinating role when it comes to fighting forest fires in Maine.
While some lawmakers questioned whether the state would have enough rangers to combat fires under the new plan, Whitcomb noted that Maine has enough additional rangers each summer to be able to send teams of rangers to fight wildfires in other states. He noted that Maine receives revenue from other states and the federal government when it sends rangers to fight fires elsewhere and that the rangers are better trained and able to help train other local firefighters as a result.
Sen. Jim Dill, D-Old Town, a member of the Agriculture Committee, asked whether the intent of the proposed changes is to convert some of the 13 rangers, who would lose their jobs under the restructuring, to the new conservation law enforcement positions.
“I would certainly hope that a lot of those individuals would be at the top of the list in terms of applicants,” Whitcomb said.
He said the department intended to use existing state civil service rules in the hiring process while recognizing the new law enforcement job classification would have heightened qualification requirements.
“It is shifting responsibilities,” Whitcomb said. “It’s portrayed around this building occasionally that every ranger wants to be armed. I know that not to be the case, and I think you do too.”
While Whitcomb downplayed the potential lost ranger positions, he also told lawmakers there was little doubt the proposal before them was a significant change in the way the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry would be operated and staffed.
As part of an overall budget proposal being offered by the LePage administration, lawmakers will spend the next few months holding hearings and work sessions on the proposals and could adopt or reject all, part or none of them.