The LePage administration has appointed the head of the Maine Forest Service to oversee forestry activities within the Bureau of Parks and Lands, giving Gov. Paul LePage a key ally in his plan to increase logging on Maine’s state-owned lands.
Doug Denico’s appointment is likely to heighten concerns among some groups opposed to LePage’s plans for more intensive timber harvesting on Maine’s “public reserved lands” and for dismantling the agency responsible for managing state parks and public lands.
“Hopefully, Doug is willing to reach out and talk to a lot of the groups that are concerned about our public lands … and that the public expectations for managing for public recreation, wildlife and timber management will continue,” said Tom Abello, senior policy adviser for the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, advised departmental staff in an email Monday that Denico will be responsible for forestry activities on public lands, while Ron Hunt, currently the acting director of operations for the Bureau of Parks and Lands, will handle all other responsibilities. The two men are assuming the responsibilities of the former director of the bureau, Tom Morrison, who retired last week.
A well-known figure in Maine’s professional forestry circles for decades, Denico worked for some of Maine’s largest commercial timberland owners and paper mills before joining the Maine Forest Service in 2011. He is also a former president of the board of directors of the Maine Forest Products Council, the influential trade group that represents timberland owners, paper mills and other segments of the industry in Augusta.
Denico said he plans to meet with bureau staff members this week to hear their concerns and plans for the upcoming season.
“The first thing is making the transition seamless so they can get the job done, and then we will start talking about my vision,” Denico said. He acknowledged that there will be more logging on public lands, but said the bureau will continue to be guided by the same forestry practices and to manage those lands with the public’s interest in mind.
“Will there be some changes? Probably,” Denico said. “Will they be noticeable? I doubt it.”
The appointment of Denico to oversee management of Maine’s 600,000 acres of state-owned lands is consistent with LePage’s larger goals for the department. Denico supports controversial plans to increase the level of harvesting on public lands from 141,500 cords annually to 180,000 cords, with the additional proceeds flowing to programs to help Mainers convert their homes to more efficient heating systems.
LePage also has proposed dissolving the Bureau of Parks and Lands as part of his two-year budget. Management of Maine’s 600,000 acres of public reserved lands would transfer to the Maine Forest Service and the department’s Bureau of Conservation would oversee Maine’s state parks. Monday’s announcement means Denico will oversee forestry on public lands regardless of whether the Legislature agrees to the reorganization.
The proposals have received a chilly reception from some lawmakers on the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, however, and from interest groups. Those issues, as well as Denico’s appointment, will likely be prominent topics during the committee’s work session on the budget scheduled for Wednesday.
Rep. Craig Hickman, the Winthrop Democrat who co-chairs the committee, deferred to the administration when it comes to personnel decisions.
“We are still going to look very closely at the budget proposals,” Hickman said Monday. “These are (personnel) decisions that the governor and commissioner have the prerogative to make.”
Abello, with The Nature Conservancy, said the proposal to dissolve the parks bureau encountered strong push-back. Now LePage appears to be bypassing both the Legislature and the public by giving Denico oversight of forestry on the public lands, he said.
“That is probably the most frustrating part for us,” Abello said.
Although they frequently share resources and staff expertise, the forest service and parks bureau have traditionally operated as separate entities with different missions.
The forest service works primarily with the state’s private timberland owners on land management and to control wildfires and insect pests. The bureau manages more than 400,000 acres of state-owned lands for timber management, but does so through a multiple-use philosophy that prioritizes outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat above timber values.
Denico said he regularly worked with the public on outdoor recreation issues during his career as a forester on private lands, but he also acknowledged that this new role will be different.
“The people own this land and that takes a special focus,” he said.