AUGUSTA — LePage administration proposals to outsource two dozen state park jobs and eliminate conservation-related positions received a chilly reception from some lawmakers and advocacy groups Friday.

The administration wants to hire contractors to fill 15 seasonal assistant park ranger jobs and nine laborer jobs out of roughly 200 seasonal, primarily summertime jobs at state parks. Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said the shift makes sense because contractors can do many of the maintenance and other basic jobs more efficiently, especially considering the poor shape of some state equipment such as lawn mowers.

“There are other people who can do limited functions better than we as a state can,” Whitcomb told lawmakers who are reviewing his portion of Gov. Paul LePage’s $6.8 billion budget proposal. “And when you see a great employee that works as hard as they work – working after-hours with a lawn mower … it’s a wrong thing for those people to do and it’s the wrong thing for the state to expect them to do. We have got to segregate some of these activities.”

But Rep. Thomas Skolfield, R-Weld, said wanting to outsource seasonal workers because of lousy equipment “is sort of like saying a state trooper’s cruiser is dying, so we ought to eliminate the trooper” position. A former parks employee, Skolfield predicted it will be difficult for the state to find a contractor to “pick up the slack,” considering the myriad of jobs that assistant rangers and laborers do, especially when dealing with the public.

“A lot of these people are very dedicated, and they come back year after year,” Skolfield said. “They often do it as a labor of love, no pun intended. And these folks do more – far more – than mow grass and clean toilet bowls.”

Steve Curtis, a retired employee of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, said assistant rangers and laborers often “act as the ambassadors to the state of Maine” for tourists.

“We have a park system worth in excess of $100 million,” Curtis said. “It needs to be protected, not jeopardized.”

Conservation groups, meanwhile, said other aspects of LePage’s budget threaten to undermine the Land for Maine’s Future program, a frequent target of LePage’s in years past. They also warned that the changes could hurt the state’s ability to manage its 600,000 acres of public lands for multiple uses, namely recreation, wildlife and forestry.

The proposed budget would eliminate one vacant senior planner position within Land for Maine’s Future. Jeff Romano with the Maine Coast Heritage Trust said that “would do harm to the program for years to come,” in an agency that has only four employees but handles major conservation initiatives.

David Publicover with the Appalachian Mountain Club – a major landowner in the state – said he counted six cuts or transfers to positions involving conservation easements. Publicover warned that Maine is losing its ability to fulfill its legal obligations to manage or oversee easements on roughly 800,000 acres, which can lead to misunderstandings on land use or even lawsuits.

The LePage administration also continues to shift management of the state’s public lands – including public reserved lands – from the Bureau of Parks and Lands to the Maine Forest Service. That is part of a larger, yearslong fight between the administration, lawmakers and conservationists over timber harvesting on the state’s public lands. For instance, the budget contains an accounting shift that, in essence, puts the director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands in charge of state parks but continues to allow the forest service to manage public lands.

“That is the way we are functioning now,” Whitcomb said.

But Tom Abello with The Nature Conservancy said the Legislature has rejected previous attempts to dismantle the bureau.

“Proposing to move these positions out of public lands is a clear signal that the multiple-use mandate is being ignored,” Abello said. “This continues an effort from previous budgets to merge the public lands into the (forest service). At that time, these two committees unanimously rejected that concept.”

The Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee will continue reviewing the administration’s budget proposal in the coming weeks before making a recommendation to the Appropriations Committee.

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

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