AUGUSTA, Maine — Conservationists are skeptical about Gov. Paul LePage’s budget for the natural resource departments, fearful that it would open the gates for expanded commercial harvesting of state-owned property.

LePage wants to do away with the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, which is responsible for the management of more than 600,000 public acres. Instead, management of that property would go to the Maine Forest Service.

Last year, LePage pitched a plan to use the increased revenue from expanded harvesting of forests on state land to fund heating efficiency programs, but the Legislature balked. Critics, including the state’s largest conservation groups, say the budget plan is a thinly veiled second attempt to increase the commercial timber harvest on state property.

Cathy Johnson, representing the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Wednesday that having the Forest Service take over management of state property such as the Bigelow Preserve and the Bold Coast in Cutler would jeopardize the recreational and conservation goals for those properties.

Public lands are managed for multiple uses, including recreation, wildlife habitat preservation and sustainable forestry. The Forest Service advocates for the state’s forestry industry and serves private landowners with law enforcement, pest control and fire prevention services.

“If public lands were to be housed within the Bureau of Forestry, there would be pressure to manage for maximum financial return, not for preserving multiple public values,” she said.

Walter Whitcomb, commissioner for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said in an interview Wednesday that giving oversight of all the state’s timber resources, including those on public lands, to the Forest Service would ensure uniform management of Maine’s forest.

Labeling fears stirred by conservationists as unfounded, Whitcomb said the statutory requirement that public lands be managed for multiple uses will not change, regardless of who is managing them.

“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.

That reassurance wasn’t enough for Johnson.

“Maybe they’ll keep one trail, or protect one wild habitat, but it’s very clear the goal is increased harvest,” she said in an interview.

Questions raised over turnover at Parks and Lands

On Wednesday, Whitcomb discussed the consolidation plan at a joint meeting of the Appropriations and Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committees.

Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee Chairman Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, asked whether the acting director of Parks and Lands, Tom Morrison, supported the plan to eliminate the bureau.

Whitcomb demurred, saying the director would have to speak for himself, although he was not present.

Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee member Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle, later revealed that Morrison has already announced that he’d leave his post, a fact Whitcomb later confirmed to the Bangor Daily News.

“He told everybody on Monday. He’s retiring,” Whitcomb said. “I know it’s his intent to leave before [April 1].” Morrison took over as acting director of Parks and Lands last summer, when the former director, Will Harris, retired.

Harris retired after indicating he was not fully supportive of LePage’s plan to increase the timber harvest on public lands. On Wednesday, Saucier questioned whether Harris and Morrison were forced out for disagreeing with the governor on forest management.

“[Harris] did not agree with what was being proposed, and he was removed,” Saucier said. “He was either removed or he resigned. Now we understand that Tom Morrison, the acting director, is also going to resign. There’s something you’re not telling this committee.”

Harris and Morrison were both longtime employees of the department. Morrison had worked for the state since Republican Gov. John McKernan’s time in the Blaine House (1987-94), Whitcomb said, and understood that different governors have “different positions” on Parks and Lands. He called the idea of either man being forced to resign “a stretch.”

Efforts to reach Morrison this week have been unsuccessful.

Public timber harvest rises in LePage era

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 to the wood. From 2005 to 2010, timber contractors stayed within the guidelines set by the Bureau of Parks and Lands for the maximum sustainable harvest.

But since 2011, the year LePage was inaugurated, the harvests have exceeded the guidelines set by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Last year, the harvest was 11 percent higher than the suggested limit.

Critics say the numbers represent a disregard for best practices as established by the Bureau of Parks and Lands, but Whitcomb said that the difference is a result of circumstance, not intent.

The contractors “block out an area, they manage the harvest, the foresters are on site,” he said in an interview. “Then you count it all out afterward. It’s not like you count it all up as it leaves. At the end, you add it all up, and it’s usually a little over or a little under. … I don’t think in the grand scheme of things, it’s really changed anything all that much.”

Whitcomb told lawmakers, however, that he did expect an increase in timber harvest after management of public lands was transferred to the Forest Service, though he did not give specific figures.

“That’s no secret,” he said.

That didn’t sit well with Saucier, who said increased harvesting would be detrimental to the other goals of public land.

“I have a feeling that what’s going to happen is our public lands are going to be managed like a private forest,” he said. “We’re going to be looking at twigs instead of trees. I have a real problem with that.”

Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a member of the Appropriations Committee and former member of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, has supported LePage’s efforts to increase the timber harvest on public land. He said in an interview Wednesday that he still had questions about why the Bureau of Parks and Lands needed to be dissolved.

“Why are we doing that? Is there a reason for it? I’m not sure we got an answer to that yet,” he said. “I’m not going to say there’s any malicious intent with it. I don’t believe that for a second. I believe one of the ideas is more woodcutting.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...