Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands is easy to take for granted. Most visitors to state parks don’t think about their management hierarchy, and few Mainers likely give much thought to timber harvesting on public lands.
But the state’s parks and public lands play important economic roles in Maine and shouldn’t be shuffled around state government without good rationale. So far, the rationale has been muddled at best.
As part of his budget for the next two years, Gov. Paul LePage plans to dissolve the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Oversight of Public Reserved Lands, more than 660,000 acres of mostly remote timberland managed for both tree growth and recreation, would move to the Maine Forest Service. State parks would be essentially thrown in with a variety of planning agencies and the Maine Geological Survey in a new Bureau of Conservation.
At a hearing on the budget last week, several lawmakers were confused about why the changes were taking place.
“Why are we doing that? Is there a reason for it? I’m not sure we got an answer to that yet,” Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a member of the Appropriations Committee and former member of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, said in an interview last week.
Visitors to Maine’s 48 state parks and historic sites spent $60 million in Maine in 2005, according to a survey by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. This includes nearly $49 million in trip-related spending, such as gas, lodging and meals; nearly $7 million on durable goods, such as clothing, coolers and beach toys; and $2.5 million on camping equipment used in state parks. Admission and camping fees accounted for $2.2 million.
Based on these decade-old numbers, researchers at the policy center, at the University of Maine, calculated that the 2 million state park visitors supported $95.7 million of economic activity in Maine, including 1,449 full- and part-time jobs that provided $31.1 million of personal income.
No visitors data exist for Maine’ Public Reserved Lands, which don’t charge admission fees or keep track of visitation. These often remote lands offer campsites, boat launches and multiple use trails. Stretching from the Bigelow Preserve in western Maine to the Cutler Coast on the Atlantic Ocean, they are managed for recreation, wildlife and forestry. All are open to hunting.
About two-thirds of the land under management by the Bureau of Parks and Lands is open for timber harvesting, usually conducted by contractors who pay the state a fee for access. Since 2011, the year LePage was inaugurated, the harvests have exceeded guidelines set by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Last year, the harvest exceeded the suggested limit — which the LePage administration has unsuccessfully sought to raise — by 11 percent.
At the budget hearing last week, Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, told lawmakers that the changes wouldn’t make much difference.
“But, is there a philosophical difference [between the Forest Service and the Bureau of Parks and Lands]? Yeah. There is. I’m not denying that,” he said. He later said it was “no secret” that timber harvesting would increase on public lands.
Maine forest rangers and rangers who work for the Bureau of Parks and Lands, under the LePage administration plan, would focus on forestry practices and enforcement of harvesting rules, Whitcomb said. This proposal to shift rangers away from law enforcement in favor of fire suppression and timber harvest monitoring comes a year after LePage rejected a controversial bill to arm forest rangers.
Without compelling reasons, lawmakers are wise to go slow on yet another reorganization of the state’s natural resource agencies.