AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage aims to merge the state’s Departments of Agriculture and Conservation, with a goal of a more “robust natural resource economy,” not budget savings.
“Farming and forestry can be a significant part of our economic engine and both these industries are important to Maine’s future,” said LePage, a Republican, in a release issued Thursday.
Legislation to allow the change is being drafted by his office, he said.
Unlike his predecessor, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who tried and failed to merge the state’s four natural resource agencies in order to consolidate government and save money, LePage aims to pool resources, not reduce them.
“The key fact is that we’re not out to destroy anything, it’s just the other way around,” said Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture. “If it was a part of a budget reduction discussion, then I would be firmly planted on the other side.”
Whitcomb and Bill Beardsley, commissioner of the Department of Conservation, support the initiative, which has been discussed for several months.
“The governor feels that natural resources could be a driver to really help lift the state,” Beardsley said Thursday. “We have all these duplicate systems, and we think that we can standardize them and do a better job — not necessarily cheaper — but a much, much better job.”
The Department of Conservation, responsible for oversight, development and protection of 17 million acres of forest, 10.4 million acres of unorganized territories, and state parks and public lands, has a much larger budget than the Department of Agriculture, whose job is to expand agriculture and ensure food safety. Both receive some similar funding streams from the federal government.
“Sustainability is something that ties us together,” Beardsley said, explaining why the two were picked for consolidation.
Whitcomb, who noted that in many states the two functions are in the same agency, said he is hopeful that the merger would add resources to his department and help it promote emerging industries.
“There’s just not enough resources to meet the need, particularly in the area of marketing,” he said. “We’ve been picked to the bone in terms of personnel. We’ve got one person running 14 programs here.”
No staff layoffs would be caused by the merger, both commissioners said, though some positions would be eliminated through attrition.
There would be one affected position: The new department would have one leader, and it’s not clear who that would be.
“It’s up to the boss,” Whitcomb said, referring to LePage.
Whitcomb said he and Beardsley would be happy to serve — or not — in any role the governor chose for them.
State Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, a member of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, said lawmakers were briefed on the proposal this week.
“Both departments are in the business of both the use of natural resources in terms of extraction and management for recreation and enjoyment, so I think they’d be a good partnership in that sense,” he said.
McCabe said he also would like to see the Department of Agriculture receive the benefits of marketing and outreach afforded by adding the Department of Conservation’s resources.
The merger attempt could fail — as Baldacci’s did — based on opposition from a wide group of constituencies.
“There’s a lot of pushback already. … I’m trying to personally walk into it with an open mind,” McCabe said. “This may happen, this may not happen; what’s going to be best for both these agencies and the state of Maine moving forward?”
Many industry groups were unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon, but the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental advocacy group, issued a response to the plan.
“We are not persuaded that this would be a good idea, because it seems to suggest that Maine’s woods, waters and wildlife should be treated like crops and readied for market,” said Cathy Johnson, the council’s North Woods Project director, in a prepared statement.
Whitcomb said that in the past month, administration officials have bounced the idea off individuals in the affected industries to gauge their response.
“If the reaction was negative we thought we’d back away, conscious of the worries and fears in the past,” he said. “It seemed to be a discussion that was telling us to keep talking.”
MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: