About halfway through the Bureau of Public Lands’ annual report, Rep. Craig Hickman leaned into his microphone and, as one onlooker put it later, “tipped over a beehive.”
The ACF Committee room was unusually crowded March 10, perhaps because of the controversy last session over Gov. LePage’s unsuccessful proposal to expand harvesting on public lands to fund heating efficiency programs. But LePage has not given up on his plan, saying he’ll withhold $11.4 million in bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program until timber harvesting on state-owned lands is increased to aid efficiency programs. The governor’s budget also would move public lands to the Maine Forest Service (MFS), which also is raising concerns.
The March 9th meeting started quietly. For the first hour, Doug Denico, MFS director, simply went through the BPL report, page by page. He’d reached Page 24, when Hickman, D-Winthrop, who is House chair said, “Mr. Denico, I just have a question. I was looking forward to asking the acting director of Public Lands the question that I asked at the public hearing, but he is not here today. Is he still employed?”
Denico: “Yes, he’s getting done (retiring) the 27th of March. He’s cleaning out where he is now, which is (former BPL director) Will Harris’s old job and then he moves down the hall and he starts hoeing out his other office.”
Hickman: “So is there a reason why he’s not here today presenting this report to us?”
Denico: “I’m not aware. I was selected to come over. Why isn’t Tom doing it? That would be a question for Tom.”
Hickman: “I would like to ask him, but he’s not here. This is the second time I’ve wanted to ask him, but he’s not here.”
Denico: “And again Tom is in his office.”
Hickman: “Who made the decision for you to come and present this without him?”
Denico: “I don’t know. I was asked by the commissioner, obviously. If someone asked the commissioner to ask me, I don’t know.”
Hickman:: “Is he prohibited from being here as far as you are aware?
Denico: “Not that I’m aware.”
Hickman: “So if requested his presence, would that be something that could happen before the end of the day?”
Denico: “I can’t answer the imponderable questions. You can try anything you like.”
Hickman:“Well you are representing the department. So I would request his presence because I have questions for him that maybe he can actually answer since you made it very clear that some of this stuff you’re not familiar with. And we are being asked to do something serious.”
Denico: : “If you think there’s a question I can’t answer; so far you haven’t asked me a question I can’t answer.”
Hickman: “Well, the question that I was going to ask him if he were here today is: Is he in agreement with this proposed reorganization of public lands into the bureau of forestry? And since he’s not here, I can’t actually ask him that question. But I would like to know if he can come here and answer that question for me?”
Denico: “You’re right, I couldn’t answer that question and it would be very inappropriate for me.”
Hickman: “Are you in favor of it?
Denico stressed several times that he considers the BPL foresters excellent, but said they could do an even better job if they had the resources available at MFS.
Hickman continued to press him. “OK, so they’re doing an exceptional job and it can be improved. I understand that. But why would we move the bureau to another bureau for them to do a better job? You’re saying they could not do a better job, not find a way to do a better job, where they already are?”
“I think they could do a better job if forest protection answers to me and public lands answers to me, there isn’t this inter-bureau stuff anymore,” Denico said. “There’s no potential …
Hickman interrupted: “Are you saying that if this were to happen you would remain in the bureau that you are in; you wouldn’t be reshuffled anyplace else in this department either? You would remain the director of the Bureau of Forestry? You wouldn’t be the director of the bureau of public lands?”
Denico responded, “I have never heard that mentioned, no. I have no aspirations to be head of public lands. Not because it isn’t a great job. I like the job where I’m in charge of protecting 17 million acres.”
Hickman’s initial questioning lasted a full eight minutes, stopping only when Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Franklin, arrived and immediately signaled co-chair Sen. Peter Edgecomb, R-Aroostook, that he had questions. Hickman ceded the microphone.
Saviello’s questions reframed the discussion, allowing Denico to tell the committee about some of the resources and tools BPL could access at MFS, including:
• Expertise in forest inventory.
• Forest fire prevention and protection.
• Dave Struble, who is a nationally recognized bug and insect expert.
• Water quality experts, including “Keith Kanoti who is noted all along the eastern seaboard.”
• Experience in working on public lands, for example, “We planned with Portland on how to manage their thousand acres of forestland.”
• District foresters statewide who work with small and large landowners.
“If you look at what the Maine Forest Service does, one big thing we do is we protect the asset, the forest resource.” Denico said.
“So what you’re really suggesting is breaking down the silo that exists?” Saviello said.
Denico nodded, adding, “There are always silos when you’re in a bureau; whether it’s private land or public land, there are silos.”
Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle, took exception to Denico’s view that MFS and BPL foresters have similar forest management goals. He also reopened a contentious debate from last session about the amount of wood harvested of 141,000 cords annually.
“It’s still 160,000 for 2015 and 180,000 for 2016,” Saucier said. “And so it made no difference that we sent that letter at all. They just ignored us.”
The ACF Committee’s letter had only asked BPL to justify the levels proposed, Denico said, which the department did in a letter sent to ACF last January.
Saucier responded that “the people who were on this committee last year have a real trust issue with the department. And I think that’s being caused by the department, not the people on this committee.”
When Saucier referred to the letter twice more and Denico twice gave the same answer, Saviello again intervened.
“Excuse me, we have a gentleman here and we don’t need to badger him,” Saviello said.
“I’m not badgering him,” Saucier said. “I’m asking.”
Saviello interrupted. “You are badgering him. I’m asking you to keep it calm and ask a question in a nice way. You don’t do that to anybody else. Ask a question appropriately.”
“Well, if the Bureau of Public Lands representative,” Saucier began, but Edgecomb cut him off, saying, “Please keep in mind that we need to be respectful of people who are here.”
“Mr. Chairman I am being respectful,” Saucier said, “but there is no different in these two conclusions, that’s my point. So if we sent a letter from this committee to the department, they completely ignored our recommendation and I want to know why.”
Edgecomb again cautioned him, saying, he could take his concerns directly to the department and asked Saucier to speak “a little bit lower level here.”
“Well, my voice is normally loud anyway,” Saucier said. “I’m not angry or anything, but it’s just the way I talk. But we have a report in front of us, Mr. Chairman, and we are discussing the report. And the report has no difference from the 2013 discussion, so don’t you think that’s an important issue?”
Edgecomb responded, “You just made a statement, OK.”
Saucier went on, “And I think the committee deserves an answer about why it’s the same when we sent a letter that we didn’t agree with it.”
So Edgecomb asked Denico to answer the question again and Denico again said that a letter had been sent to the committee about why the harvest could be safely expanded.
Then Rep. Hickman asked Denico. “Why is a good idea to put public lands and private lands management in the same bureau? Why is that a good idea for the people of the state?”
Denico answered that MFS helps towns and communities all over the state manage public lands. “Even our district foresters work in the public sector all the time,” he said. “It’s not just private. And when it’s private, we don’t just work with the big boys. They’ve got their own staff. We work with small landowners and with both public and private, as I’ve mentioned several times.”
Hickman asked many more questions about differences between harvesting on public and private land, eventually coming full circle. “I guess I’m just really wanting someone from public lands who has been working at public lands to come and help out with this discussion,” he said.
At which point, Edgecomb conferred with committee members and asked, “Is there anyone in the room that is a professional forester who would like to speak for three minutes on what we’ve been discussing with that merger? I’ll give you an opportunity if you would like to speak for three minutes. Rep. Black would you like three minutes?”
“Uh, no,” Black said, getting a big laugh from the audience. “I would suggest Mr. Chair that we postpone the discussion that we’re having here and we make a list of people, like those Sen. Saviello has already talked about, who are experts that can answer the questions we are asking, and bring this up at another date.”