Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is pushing through a plan to merge the Maine Department of Conservation with the Department of Agriculture. We are concerned that this merger could jeopardize vital programs that provide responsible stewardship of our forests, waterways and wildlife. Resources at the heart of our way of life — including Maine’s state parks, the Land for Maine’s Future program and our public reserved lands –– could be threatened in this merger. That’s why we strongly urge the Legislature to restore the Department of Conservation and the Department of Agriculture as separate entities.

Maine’s natural resources are what make Maine such a special place for those who live here, as well as for those who visit. These special features of the state should be managed by a department that is primarily focused on the stewardship challenges and needs of these resources.

The bill to merge these two departments was rushed through the Legislature last year with many questions left unanswered, including why the merger was being proposed and how it would benefit Maine’s forests, public lands or farms. As lawmakers have sought answers to those questions, it has become increasingly clear that the merger would boost agriculture programs at the expense of conservation programs and shift the focus of all programs in the new department away from stewardship and toward the economic development potential of the resources.

The new department is heavily dominated by a focus on agriculture, even though the general fund budget of the Department of Agriculture was about one-third the size of the Department of Conservation budget. The former commissioner of Maine’s Department of Agriculture was selected to lead the new merged department, and senior leaders of the Department of Conservation have been pushed down in the bureaucracy — reducing their roles in overall management of the department.

By combining the budgets of these two departments into one pot, it becomes easier to divert resources and staff into agriculture promotion and to weaken management of our state parks, public lands and forest health and monitoring efforts. The Department of Conservation has already seen its budget cut repeatedly over the past 20 years. This is not the time to shift funding and staff away from managing the natural resources that play such an important role in defining who we are as a state.

The most pressing concern about the merger is that economic considerations may become the driving purpose of natural resource management in Maine, at the expense of the diverse and, in many cases, noneconomic values of these resources. Language in LD 837, “An Act to Clarify the Laws Establishing the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry,” declares that the “mission of the Department is to serve as steward of Maine’s natural resource economy.” This is a distinct change from the previous Department of Conservation’s mission, which was to preserve, protect and enhance the land resources of the state of Maine. The mission was not to turn those resources into money.

While we believe that proper management of our natural resources contributes to Maine’s economy, we also believe that resources like lakes, functioning ecosystems and wildlife cannot be managed like commodities. They need to be managed as natural systems that put the resource first.

The economics-first thinking is more appropriate for our agriculture promotion programs, which play an important role in boosting the output from Maine farmlands. But it is wrong to treat our conservation lands and state parks, our wildlife and ecological resources and our extensive forestlands as if they were no different than a bushel of potatoes, crate of blueberries or crop of wheat.

Although agriculture is a vital part of Maine’s economy, our natural resources — lakes, rivers, forests, coasts, mountains, fish and wildlife — are the foundations of our natural resource-based industries and nature-based tourism. Sustaining those resources is a different task than conducting on-site inspections of agricultural facilities, establishing and enforcing milk prices and overseeing harness racing, which are conducted by our state agriculture personnel.

The departmental merger bill passed last year included a provision to dissolve the merger if it failed to come together in a fashion that was coherent, integrated and beneficial to Maine. The administration is now attempting to eliminate that “sunset” provision.

The merger was not well planned, and could undermine important conservation programs that are the backbone of our natural heritage and natural resource economy. We believe it is time for lawmakers to stop the ill-conceived and harmful merger of Maine’s Department of Conservation and Maine’s Department of Agriculture.

Lisa Pohlmann is executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Ted Koffman is executive director of the Maine Audubon.