AUGUSTA — Lawmakers grilled a LePage administration official Tuesday about plans to substantially increase logging of state-owned lands and reorganize the department that oversees Maine’s public parks.

In a report filed this month with a legislative committee, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands outlined plans to increase the anticipated harvest of timber on state-owned lands from 141,500 cords to 180,000 cords in fiscal year 2016-17. The increased harvesting will reduce tree mortality caused by overcrowding and reduce the risks of trees dying from insects such as the spruce budworm, which is expected reappear in Maine within the next several years, the bureau said.

Doug Denico, who directs the Maine Forest Service, said the Bureau of Parks and Lands is averaging only about 10,000 acres a year.

At that rate, it would take 40 years for foresters to “touch” each of the 400,000-plus acres of public lands that are managed for timber. He said that is too long to ensure the forest is producing the types of trees that are desirable for timber.

“If you want to shape the forest, you have to go in there and work it,” Denico told the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.

“Mother Nature doesn’t care if it’s a sugar maple or a red maple, but we do.”

But Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle, said that the state traditionally has put a higher priority on managing its public lands for recreation or other values than Maine’s private timberland owners, who are more profit-oriented. That’s a concern also raised by some environmental and outdoor recreation groups.

Saucier also pointed out that the committee expressed concerns about the increased harvest levels in a letter last year only to see the same proposal come back a year later.

“They completely ignored us and I want to know why,” Saucier told Denico. “I think the committee deserves an answer as to why it is the same when we sent a letter saying we didn’t approve of it.”

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

The questioning by lawmakers came on the day state officials said they weren’t releasing funds for the Land for Maine’s Future program, raising speculation the administration is using the conservation program as leverage to gain support for its initiatives within the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Maine has more than 600,000 acres of public lands that are managed by the bureau for wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation and timber harvesting.

Public reserved lands, a separate category from state parks, include such popular spots as the Bold Coast trail outside Cutler, and the Bigelow Preserve and Bald Mountain in western Maine.

Roughly two-thirds of that land, just over 400,000 acres, is managed for timber harvesting under guidelines set by the two leading sustainable forestry certification organizations.

The amount of wood harvested from state-owned lands more than doubled from 71,773 cords in 2006 to 155,152 cords last year, according to department statistics. Harvests have increased by roughly one-third since LePage took office in 2011, department figures show.

While partly attributable to a rebounding construction industry, the LePage administration has said repeatedly that Maine can increase revenues and improve management of the land through additional harvesting.

Timber harvesting was only one flashpoint during Tuesday’s discussion.

Lawmakers also pressed Denico, and Commissioner Walt Whitcomb, on the administration’s plans to shuffle various programs and positions in the department.

As part of his $6.3 billion budget state proposal, LePage has proposed dissolving the Bureau of Parks and Lands and dividing its responsibilities between two other bureaus. The Bureau of Conservation would oversee state parks, while management of the public reserved lands and other state-owned lands would fall under the Maine Forest Service.

Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, pressed Denico about why the administration is seeking the change and why the current head of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, Tom Morrison, was not there to testify. Denico said he was unsure why he was asked to present the report rather than Morrison, who is retiring this month.

“If they are doing such an exceptional job, why are we trying to change things?” Hickman asked.

CENTRALIZATION PROPOSED

Denico responded that having all of the foresters under one roof would be beneficial, and the Maine Forest Service is able to carry out forestry tasks – such as inventorying lands – that the bureau currently contracts out.

“We have expertise on protecting assets, forestry assets, that they don’t specialize in like we do,” Denico said. “And that’s a big thing we can bring to them, whether it is insect disease, water quality or fire (protection).”

Lawmakers and other groups also have criticized the administration’s plans to eliminate more than 20 forest ranger positions around the state while creating seven new natural resources officer positions to take over law enforcement duties now handled by forest rangers.

With tensions occasionally flaring on the committee, lawmakers opted Tuesday to hold another work session with department experts to address specific concerns about the timber harvesting rates and the governor’s budget proposal.

Kevin Miller can be reached at 791-6312 or at:

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