November 16, 2011

GEORGE SMITH: Parks and Lands, Agriculture merger wouldn't please anyone

George Smith

Gov. Paul LePage's announcement that he will propose a merger of the Departments of Agriculture and Conservation has drawn surprisingly little reaction -- perhaps because he hasn't yet submitted the authorizing legislation.

Do you think the Department of Agriculture is the appropriate place for the management of your parks and public lands? Doesn't seem like a good fit to me.

When Gov. John Baldacci submitted his third proposal to merge natural resource agencies, the Natural Resources Network responded with a thoughtful consolidation proposal that moved forestry to the Agriculture Department but left Parks and Lands as a separate stand-alone agency.

The Natural Resources Network is an alliance of organizations whose members depend on Maine's natural resources for business and recreation.

NRN members are the Maine Forest Products Council, Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, Maine Potato Board, Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, Maine Aquaculture Association, Maine Dairy Industry Association, Maine Snowmobile Association, Maine Lobstermen's Association, Wild Blueberry Commission, Maine Trappers Association, Maine Farm Bureau, Maine Professional Guides Association, Maine Bowhunters Association, and Independent Energy Producers Association.

At the time, I represented the Sportsman's Alliance in the Network.

Network members successfully fought all three of Baldacci's natural resource agency merger proposals, but I haven't heard as much as a whimper yet from the Network about LePage's proposal.

You can expect that some of the state's agricultural interests won't be forming a welcoming committee to move parks and lands into "their" agency -- mostly because along with parks and lands comes the environmental community. Few farmers want the state's environmental activists taking an interest in their activities.

It remains to be seen if the state's environmental groups will be equally skeptical of LePage's proposal, but I expect that to happen once the battle is joined at the Legislature.

Small mission-focused agencies work better than large natural resource departments. Maine needs lean self-funded natural resource agencies that anticipate change, recognize economic opportunities, and constantly reposition themselves to serve the needs of Maine's economy and people.

We look to our abundant natural resources -- from forests to parks -- to pull us out of this dreadful economic malaise. We understand that these natural resources, from the ocean to the North Woods, have driven our economy in the past and remain the key to our economic future.

Yet we continue to fail to put our money where it can do the most good for our economy and our people.

State expenditures for natural resource agencies has gone steadily downhill, comprising 4.3 percent of the state budget in 1981, 3.6 percent in 1990, 2.7 percent in 2000, 2.3 percent in 2006, and just 1.8 percent in the current two-year budget (according to my calculations).

You might ask why LePage is even bothering with this merger proposal. He says he hopes, through the merger, to free up additional revenue for the combined agency, so that the combined agency can do more than the separate agencies.

I guarantee that will not happen. Consolidation doesn't save money -- in fact, initially, it costs money. It cost $100,000 to merge the small Atlantic Salmon Commission into the Department of Marine Resources.

The management of parks and public lands is completely different from the management of farms and forests -- different mission, different constituencies, different programs. The growing importance of parks, public lands and easement lands to the state's outdoor recreation economy justify department status where acquisition priorities can be established and management performed efficiently.

And if for some reason we can't abide a standalone agency for our parks and lands, there's a better place to move it.

There are eight states with Fish, Wildlife and Parks Departments. Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, for example, works very well, but as you might imagine, sportsmen's interests dominate it.

That probably wouldn't suit Maine environmentalists, either. Or sportsmen, for that matter, who continue to advocate for a Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife that serves their own interests.

LePage should do the easy thing: move forestry to Agriculture. And leave the rest of Conservation alone. Then he should thoughtfully consider this from legislative testimony submitted by the Natural Resources Network in 2008. "From the Blaine House Conference on Natural Resources to GrowSmart Maine's report by the Brookings Institution, our natural resource agencies have been recognized for their importance to Maine's economy, for their potential to expand that economy especially in rural areas, for their efficiency, and for their need for additional investment."

Emphasis on additional investment.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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