AUGUSTA — State lawmakers and conservation groups are raising concerns that Gov. Paul LePage will soon appoint the current director of the Maine Forest Service to also oversee the Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Forest service Director Doug Denico said Thursday that he knew “zippo” about a potential appointment. Nonetheless, the prospect of Denico maintaining his current job while also overseeing the agency that manages the state’s conservation and recreation areas was seen as a foregone conclusion at the State House.

His appointment could effectively advance the governor’s proposal to dissolve the Bureau of Parks and Lands and fold its duties into the forest service, even if the Legislature rejects the proposal this session. Denico would also oversee the administration’s plan for increasing timber harvests on publicly owned land.

Folding the bureau into the forest service, which mostly interacts with the state’s private commercial timberland owners, is one of the more controversial proposals in LePage’s two-year budget. It has thus far received a chilly reception from Republicans and Democrats, some of whom in 2013 authorized another agency merger under the understanding that the Bureau of Parks and Lands would continue to have its own director.

Conservation groups also worry that LePage’s proposal signals the administration’s desire to move away from outdoor recreation and more toward increased timber harvesting.

Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle, a member of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, said news of Denico’s expected appointment has moved swiftly through the State House even though “the administration is trying to keep it quiet.”

“It’s very serious and there’s nothing we can do about it because it’s an appointment by the governor,” Saucier said.

John Bott, communications director for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, would not comment on Denico’s possible appointment, which could happen as soon as Monday. However, he noted that Denico would effectively oversee the Bureau of Parks and Lands anyway if the governor’s departmental reorganization plan is enacted.

Bott also noted that Tom Morrison, the current director of the bureau, announced last month that he will retire Friday. Morrison has not commented on why he is leaving.

Morrison’s predecessor, Will Harris, said he retired last year after nearly four decades at the bureau because he disagreed with LePage’s plans for the bureau and a perceived shift toward favoring commercial timber harvesting in the management of 600,000 acres of state-owned “public reserved lands.” Harris told the Press Herald that he didn’t believe the administration “cared much” about the outdoors or outdoor recreation. He also was concerned about the administration’s plans to divert money away from the bureau for other purposes.

“Whenever anybody who is in that kind of position can’t really get behind an administration’s policies, it is time for them to change,” Harris said. “And so it was for me.”

FORMER HEAD OF FOREST TRADE GROUP

Republicans and Democrats said Thursday that they were worried about Denico overseeing two agencies that currently are managed with different objectives.

Denico is a former president of the Maine Forest Products Council, the politically influential trade group for the paper industry and commercial forestland owners. He is a licensed forester and formerly worked for International Paper, Scott Paper, S.D. Warren, Plum Creek Timber and Sappi Fine Paper.

“I wouldn’t think that it would be a wise move,” said. Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton. “I’m concerned about it. I’m real concerned about it.”

Black said he had hoped the administration would find someone to replace Morrison. He said that when lawmakers backed LePage’s 2013 plan to merge the Department of Agriculture with the Department of Conservation, they did so with the understanding that the Bureau of Parks and Lands would continue to have a director devoted to conservation.

“We carried the water for that merger and that merger wasn’t very popular,” Black said. “We were told by the administration that was not a cost-saving idea. We were told the reason we were doing this is to share resources and make the bureau stronger.”

He added, “We have two (bureaus) and we ought to have two directors. One is needed to focus on forestry issues, the other on parks and public lands.”

GOOD FORESTRY OR A CASH COW?

The administration – and recently Denico – have argued that dissolving the Bureau of Parks and Lands and folding its duties into the forestry division is a natural fit. The two agencies already employ foresters, and the forest service is often called in to support the parks bureau on pest management and fire control.

Denico has been a vocal proponent of LePage’s plan to increase timber harvesting on state-owned lands starting next year. He has argued that Maine’s public lands are dense with mature trees and that actively managing that land on a more regular basis leads to more valuable stocks of trees that are less susceptible to pests.

Critics of the proposal say the administration views public lands as a cash cow.

Since LePage took office in 2011, timber harvests on state-owned lands have increased by more than 34 percent, from 115,167 cords to 155,152 cords last year, and timber revenues nearly doubled to $7.8 million. The plan calls for increasing the harvest further, to 180,000 cords next year.

“We’re concerned about the amount of cutting on public lands,” Saucier said. “The foresters in the Bureau of Public Lands have science behind the amount of the cut … and we agreed to the increase to 141,500 cords based on that science. We’ve heard that they want to go up to 220,000 cords per year. This is serious stuff.”

He added, “We’re going to take our public lands down to what the commercial forests look like, and I don’t think that’s what the public wants.”

Currently, the Bureau of Parks and Lands and the administration can authorize increased timber harvesting on public lands without legislative approval. However, past bureau directors, including Morrison and Harris, have taken a cautious approach. Conservation groups worry that the timber harvest will become more aggressive under Denico.

“At least before (the administration) had to deal with (Morrison or Harris),” said Jeff Romano, a lobbyist with Maine Heritage Coast Trust. “He’s a career forest industry person. That’s great. It’s the perfect background for the Maine Forest Service, but there’s no background for the Bureau of Parks and Lands.”

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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