The rustling of pages was the only sound to be heard during the most exciting moment of the public hearing on LD 837, the bill that attempts to sort out the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry merger.
When the Natural Resource Network’s testimony was handed out to the committee, the first page was a proposed organizational chart for the merged department — the very thing that legislators wanted most, but hadn’t yet received.
“I know we’ve asked for it a couple of times, but do you have any kind of a flow chart that you can present, at least at the work session, to show us where we are now?” Rep. James Dill, D-OldTown, and House chair of the committee asked Commissioner Walt Whitcomb.
Whitcomb promised to provide the department’s chart later, but there already were clear signs that some committee members were not sold on the merger. After Whitcomb read his three pages of testimony, he was sharply questioned by legislators for more than 30 minutes.
“I’m hoping by the end of the day someone will convince me that the merger makes sense. So far no one has,” said Rep. Craig V. Hickman, D-Winthrop. “I need to be convinced that we’re going to save money by doing this and so far I have not.”
As Whitcomb stepped away from the podium, David Bell, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission, stepped up to testify first for the Natural Resource Network. Since each person who testified was limited to three minutes, the Network’s presentation was assigned to Bell, MFPC Executive Director Patrick Strauch, Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, and Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board. Later in the hearing Clark Granger also testified for the Farm Bureau in support of the network’s proposal and so did Tom Doak supported for SWOAM.
“We supported the merger last year based on a couple of goals, including that there should be a reduction in administrative expenses,” Bell told the committee. “Currently, as proposed in the biennial budget and LD 837, it falls short of those goals. However, we continue to support the merger of the ACF department because we think it will result in a stronger voice for Maine’s natural resource economy and help us focus on the opportunities we all believe exist.”
He then turned the microphone over Strauch, who quickly walked the committee members through the network’s proposal for the organization of the department.
“We wanted to make sense out of all the functions of the agriculture, conservation and forestry,” Strauch told them. “There is a Bureau of Agriculture, Bureau of Forestry, Bureau of Parks and Lands, and Bureau of Resource Information and Planning. “We thought those were logical compartments that maintained the integrity of the individual focuses of expertise and also brought them together in a different way so we could match up the synergies.”
Meyers outlined the statutory changes the network proposed, including those designed to address qualifications for commissioner, guiding principles and stewardship of parks and lands. Flannery talked about concerns about the management structure, clarification of the advisory committee and reporting requirements.
“LD 837 is a vehicle for those here today whether they are speaking for or against,” Flannery said. “You’re going to hear their concerns, their ideas and it’s a chance for the committee, if they so wish, to try to get this right.”
Among the opponents of LD 837 was the Natural Resource Council of Maine, whose testimony was presented by Cathy Johnson. She told the committee that NRCM has serious questions about the value of the merger, adding, “No one has yet articulated any benefit to the programs within the Department of Conservation from this merger. Rather than benefits, this proposed merger threatens the fundamental purpose of the department.”
The most “egregious provision,” Johnson said is the proposal in L.D. 837 “to change the mission of the Department of Conservation from one of conservation, protection and stewardship of our state’s mountains, lakes, rivers, forests, wildlife and other natural areas into a mission of natural resource extraction and economic development.”
The work session on LD 837 has not yet been scheduled, Strauch said Friday, but could be as soon as Thursday, April 4.
“I think it was important for us to provide the committee with some structure for the department,” Strauch said. “Now all interests can look at our proposal, participate in the discussion and create a stronger department.”