Whether they’re delving into Maine’s history at Colonial Pemaquid, collecting shells at Popham Beach or fishing at Lake St. George, residents and visitors alike love Maine’s historic sites and state parks. And knowledgeable and helpful staff are a key part of what makes that experience so special. Our response to the LePage administration’s proposal to outsource state park staffing can be summed up in four words: Don’t mess with success.
The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands oversees over 50 state parks and historic sites, and the new plan calls for hiring contractors to fill two dozen seasonal positions within the bureau: 14 full-time assistant park rangers, one part-time assistant ranger and nine full-time laborers. The $410,000 proposal isn’t expected to save money. Instead, the idea is that contractors will have the equipment to more efficiently carry out tasks such as lawn maintenance at the parks, Walt Whitcomb, state commissioner of agriculture, conservation and forestry, recently told the Press Herald.
But people who are versed in public land management in Maine have well-founded concerns about the outsourcing plan. One significant issue: the impact on the experience of park visitors.
Those whose jobs are in line to be outsourced are “the meat and potatoes of park labor during the summer,” as Alan Stearns, a Parks and Lands Bureau deputy chief in the Baldacci administration, described them. They’re veteran park employees, with years of experience that equip them to guide a visitor to their destination or help a first responder circumvent crowds at the site en route to an injury scene.
And visitors appreciate the assistance they get, according to researchers with the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, who found in 2005 that “a staff emphasis on providing high-quality visitor experiences” contributes to “consistently high visitor satisfaction ratings.”
What’s more, as with all outsourcing efforts, this proposal should also raise questions about who will oversee the contract, and how the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Department will measure the improvements, if any, in the efficiency of park and historic site maintenance.
Maine’s parks and historic sites have been drawing a lot of people – nearly 2.9 million in 2016, setting an attendance record for the second straight year. Seasonal state workers are the welcoming face of the parks, and the LePage administration hasn’t made a compelling argument for putting private contractors in their place.