Lawmakers are seeking to block the LePage administration’s plans to increase timber harvesting on state-owned lands and are proposing to arm forest rangers with Tasers rather than create a new type of natural resources law enforcement officer.

Members of a legislative committee endorsed many of Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposals for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry but gutted the most controversial aspects of his plan. For instance, the panel recommended reinstating roughly 20 forest ranger positions that were proposed for elimination, rejected plans to dismantle the Bureau of Parks and Lands and, in a compromise with those seeking to arm rangers, recommended equipping them with Tasers and bullet-proof vests.

OVERSIGHT OF LOGGING

The bipartisan Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee is also seeking more oversight over how much logging occurs on state-owned land and is trying to block department plans to increase harvest levels. The committee’s recommendations come at a time when LePage is vowing to withhold bonds for land conservation projects unless lawmakers agree to spend some timber revenues on home heating programs.

“Until I see the data and see what the administration wants to do … I just don’t want to give them a blank check,” said Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton. “We definitely have the wood. We have done a good job. But before we do more (harvesting), let’s make sure we have a good plan.”

The LePage administration plans to continue making its case to the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, which will finalize the two-year spending plan over the next two months.

“There is still a long way to go,” said Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the department.

Much of the debate around the department’s budget focused on forestry rather than agriculture. In the $6.57 billion budget plan he released in January, LePage proposed eliminating more than 20 forest ranger positions – some of which are currently vacant – and transferring the law enforcement tasks now handled by rangers to seven new “natural resources” officers.

LePage also proposed dissolving the Bureau of Parks and Lands, or BPL, which oversees all operations on state parks and management of Maine’s 600,000-plus acres of “public reserved lands.” State parks would, instead, be overseen by a Bureau of Conservation while the Maine Forest Service, which typically works with the state’s private commercial timberland owners, would take over management of the public reserved lands.

A QUESTION OF PRIORITIES

But the BPL proposals ran into stiff opposition from outdoor recreation groups, conservation organizations and some forestry experts. Critics fear the forest service would not place as high a priority on managing the 600,000 acres of public reserved lands for outdoor recreation, wildlife habitat and other non-timber values.

In recent weeks, the committee recommended rejection of all of those proposals during votes that were either unanimous or had only one dissenting vote. Members also endorsed language making it clear that the BPL director would oversee timber management on all bureau lands in a clear signal to LePage, who recently gave Maine Forest Service Director Doug Denico responsibility for harvesting on public reserved lands.

One year after a heated debate over whether to provide guns to forest rangers, the committee also voted to require the department to supply rangers with Tasers and ballistic vests. Rangers must complete the Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s 200-hour-long Law Enforcement Pre-Service program but do not typically receive the firearms training provided to those in the basic law enforcement program.

The committee wrapped up its work on the department’s budget on Thursday.

‘RED FLAGS’

Tom Abello, senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy, said some of the proposals clearly “set off red flags among the committee.” Abello pointed to the unanimous or near-unanimous votes on the highest-profile items as evidence of the committee’s nonpartisan approach.

“If you look at the budget that they were presented with, there were a lot of concerns on the committee and a lot of concerns among a wide variety of interest groups,” Abello said. “The committee did a good job listening to those concerns and putting together a budget that kept the department whole.”

But the committee’s decisions will add nearly $1 million to the department’s roughly $100 million proposed budget, a gap that will have to be reconciled by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

Some of the most contentious debates – such as how much wood to cut on state-owned lands – are likely far from over, however.

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, while timber revenues nearly doubled to $7.8 million. The Bureau of Parks and Lands has plans to increase that harvest to 180,000 cords starting next year, a move department officials say could actually improve forest health and increase revenues without harming the state’s sustainability certification.

REVENUE FOR HEATING PROGRAMS

The LePage administration is finalizing a bill that would allow the department to use $5 million in revenue from that logging to help Mainers convert their older home furnaces to more efficient heating systems. And he has made clear that he will play political hardball to get it as he withholds $11.4 million in voter-approved bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program, putting in limbo more than a dozen projects already slated for LMF money.

While the Legislature now reviews the bureau’s harvesting plans, it has no authority to set cutting levels. That would change under one proposed budget amendment approved by the committee in a 7-1 vote.

The amendment would prohibit the department from cutting more than the current “allowable average cut” of 141,500 cords per year over any two-year period. In order to harvest more, the department would have to adopt rules – backed up by an independent timber inventory – that would be reviewed by the committee.

Black, the Wilton Republican serving on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, said he could likely support additional harvesting but he wants the department to provide more information and assurances to the committee first.

Commissioner Whitcomb was diplomatic when discussing the committee’s attempt to exert more oversight on harvesting, saying lawmakers “are attempting from their legislative chairs to manage a very significant resource.”

“But if we are arguing about who can do it better, at least we are talking about doing it better,” Whitcomb said.