Support for the ACF merger stood firm Wednesday, though it was certainly tested when Commissioner Walt Whitcomb told the ACF Committee that they needed to include five new positions in the amendment to LD 837.
“I’m having a hard time understanding how we can combine two departments and end up with more people,” Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, co-chair.
Wednesday’s work session could have just been a quick run-through of the changes to the LD 837 amendment that the committee approved 11-2 last week. But when Whitcomb began talking about new positions, he also unleashed a discussion of everything from the size of his office staff, to Di-Cap funding, to the reception a request for new positions would receive in Appropriations.
The five “new” positions, though, were mostly a difference of perspective. Two were inspector positions that had been proposed to be cut, but were reinstated. Two were the directors of the new bureaus, Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, and Resource, Information and Land Use Planning. The fifth was the director of the Land for Maine’s Future program, which is now directed by Deputy Commissioner Ed Meadows.
“You say we’ve created five extra positions, but in my mind we weren’t creating five extra positions,” said Rep. James F. Dill (D-Old Town), co-chair. “It was more taking what you have and shifting them around . . . It was certainly not our intent to increase administration at all. We were, hopefully, trying to streamline administration and have fewer appointees.”
The commissioner conceded “it could be as simple” as saying the commissioner can designate a division director to become a bureau director. “I’m not saying it’s not solvable,” he said. “I just want you (the committee) to solve it.”
Whitcomb’s initial merger plan would have concentrated supervision in the commissioner’s office. On Wednesday, committee members questioned him several times about the number of appointed positions in the department.
“There were concerns because the commissioner still seemed entrenched in a model of management that we and the committee had moved past,” said Executive Director Patrick Strauch.
The Natural Resource Network’s proposal advocated four bureaus – agriculture, forestry, parks and lands, and resource information and land use planning – centered on the department’s key responsibilities. Committee members, in fact, were still referring to the NRN organizational chart at Wednesday’s session. Sen. Jackson asked Whitcomb to provide an ACF chart next week.
“The NRN proposal seemed to have helped solidify the discussion,” Strauch said, “The committee adopted the framework and then adapted it to address their concerns and the concerns of those in the community.”
So despite the wide-ranging discussion Wednesday, the committee chairs, particularly Rep. Dill, managed to keep the amendment on track. The vote was again 11-2, with only Rep. Peter Kent (D-Woolwich) and Rep. Brian Jones (D-Freedom) voting no.
“I think the committee has been working hard on the bill and has reached a consensus that will carry it through the House and the Senate,” Strauch said. “There is still work to be done to make sure that happens and we will be watching and working.”
That doesn’t mean that Wednesday’s work session went quickly or smoothly. Committee members quickly got hung up on the qualifications for ACF commissioner. Early on, Rep. Donald G. Marean (R-Hollis) introduced an amendment at the request of the Maine Farm Bureau that would have emphasized agricultural production experience, but not forestry or natural resources.
“That kind of takes us a step to where we were in the beginning,” said Rep. James F. Dill (D-Old Town), chair. “An agriculturist who then has experience in these other areas.”
“I think that’s exactly what they want,” Marean replied.
That amendment gained no traction. But a “friendly” amendment by Rep.Craig V. Hickman (D-Winthrop) was included in the guiding principles concerning agriculture and his suggestion was added to the title of the agriculture bureau.Quite late in the thee-hour work session, the discussion took a 20-minute detour when Hickman asked ACF Commissioner Walt Whitcomb to come up to the microphone and answer two sweeping questions: 1. How is this (the merger) going? 2. What are the initiatives in each department? Whitcomb answered that there are 45 “fairly well-distributed” initiatives and then provided details and further comments.
But the committee spent most of the hearing debating whether the commissioner should be a person of recognized executive ability who is qualified by training, knowledge OR (emphasis added) experience in agricultural production, forestry or natural resource management, or whether the word AND should be substituted for OR. Some thought very few candidates would be available if the word was AND. Others thought anyone who would run such a diverse department would need knowledge, training and experience in all three major areas.
There was much talk about “splitting hairs,” but a straw poll taken about an hour into a debate seemed to settle the issue — 7 for OR, 4 for AND — and the draft of the amendment will read OR, Spruce said Friday. But the issue kept cropping up again, even when Spruce was running through the list of changes to the amendment just before the vote. Spruce told the committee they’d agreed to: Strike the emergency preamble, add a slightly amended version of the mission statement and guiding principles and slightly change the qualifications for commissioner.
“The vote in ACF was encouraging because I thought members were starting to understand the strength of creating a land based agency that can move Maine’s natural resources into a position of greater strength,” Strauch said. “NRCM and Audubon continue to be threatened by this alliance and lobby against it at every corner in the legislature. We expect a good debate on the issue as the bill works its way through the House and Senate and will seek you voices of support at the appropriate time.”
- On Monday the Appropriations Committee voted on BETR and BETE and unanimously recommended three things:
- Reduce funding of BETR in the first fiscal year of the budget to 90 percent, so a decrease of 10 percent.
- Reduce reimbursement in the second fiscal year of the budget to 80 percent, so a loss of 20 percent reimbursement.
- Require a thoughtful study of the BETR to BETE conversion with a report back to Appropriations.
- The Environment and Natural Resources Committee worked on LD 1302, An Act To Amend the Maine Metallic Mineral Mining Act To Protect Water Quality. It will be worked again next Wednesday. Rep. Jeff McCabe (D-Skowhegan), the bill’s sponsor, is very interested in pursuing some kind of amendment to the mining law that was passed last year. However, at this point we don’t know what his amendment will look like. We’ll be vigilant and present at the work session (1 p.m.,Cross Building, Room 216.)
- The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee had a long day of testimony on more anti wind bills. MFPC testified against several, including LD 1325 and LD 1375. These bills essentially would change permitting rules midstream. They would set a terrible precedent for businesses in Maine that abide by one set of rules, only to have these rules changed.
- The Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee’s public hearing Friday on LD 1474, An Act To Amend the Laws Pertaining to the Hunting of Bear, was held Friday and MFPC opposed the bill along with many others. After the hearing, the committee moved right into work session and voted unanimously to kill the bill. The U.S. Humane Society, which has been pushing the bill, has indicated it has a war chest of about $3 million and intends to pursue another citizen initiatve referendum. Stay tuned.
- The UT municipal cost component bill (LD 1228) was heard in Taxation this week. It appears that expenses are in line with last year. Normally a straight forward process (that is dependant on landowner intervention at the county level of budget preparation), Wind Power TIFs were within the financial UT budget. Committee members separated these expenses out of the bill and are proposing a moratorium on UT TIFS until a study group has been selected.
- LD 1177 will be held over until next session with a task force of legislators and interested parties meeting over the summer to determine if there are some common sense solutions that can resolve the difficult issue of discontinued roads and associated liabilities.
All bills are to be cleared out of committee next week while at the same time the legislative council rules for a two-week public notice on hearings has been eliminated by leadership. Hold on to your hats as late bills come flying through the system and we send out panicked calls to action. We will keep you posted as the horse trading on the third floor commences.
I certainly appreciated the response to the call to action we put out to landowners about contacting the Criminal Justice Committee concerning LD 297, the bill to arm rangers. I think it is important that the committee understand the concerns of landowners. We will keep you posted as this issue is debated.
- The ACF merger was discussed further Wednesday in work session. The committee focused on the Natural Resource Network bill as modified by several legislators. In one proposed amendment, the qualifications of ACF commissioner concerned the farming community and brought acceptance of the bill into question. Rep. Peter S. Kent (D-Woolwich) and Rep. Craig V. Hickman (D-Winthrop) continue to have concerns about the proposed amendment, but have not yet provided any suggestions for change. The vote on LD 837 in committee is expected coming Wednesday (1 p.m., State House, Room 127) and we will keep you posted.
- LD 1259: Chapter 17 rules for bonded labor have been amended to the point where rule-making is driving lawmaking, when in fact the process should work in reverse. We are working to understand Senator Troy Jackson’s concerns and provide information to the committee that is accurate.
- We testified against LD 1391, a new electronic pesticide notification process. In line with the agricultural community, we pointed out that there already are two notification systems and an additional one is not needed.
- The Environmental and Natural Resources Committee are trying to organize the many wind power bills. We are trying to address landowner issues in a coherent manner. LDs 385, 616,1325,1323, 1147.
- Several mining bills were heard Monday morning that either created prohibitions on mining (LD 1059) or sought to revisit issues settled in the 125th legislative session. (LDs 1302,1324) In general we oppose these bills. Our position is to maintain the course in developing a set of rules and working to review those rules next year in a thorough process.
- The east-west highway was thoroughly discussed in the transportation committee. We are monitoring these discussions, but not presenting a MFPC position on the issue. LDs 985, 1304, 870.
LD 1430, An Act To Clarify the Permitted Use of Aquatic Pesticides, which is a fairly technical bill that will help us obtain a general use permit for aerial applications of pesticides. It will help to clarify our use of aerial applications as we plan for budworm management.
LD 1468, An Act To Establish the High-efficiency Biomass Pellet Boiler Rebate Program and the Home Heating Conversion Fund, poses an interesting concept. Proceeds from harvests on public lands would repay a bond used to finance conversion of homes to pellet-heating systems. Harvesting more wood off public lands in a sustainable manner makes sense, but the council is concerned about limiting this opportunity to wood pellets.
The bill to arm Maine’s forest rangers passed 11-2 at Wednesday’s work session, but that certainly wasn’t the last word or last vote of the Criminal Justice and Safety Committee.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Cumberland and co-chair, voted no (along with Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Cumberland) and noted that not only are there technical problems with the bill, but there is no fiscal note.
“I don’t want to vote on a bill today that will go down to Appropriations and die an inglorious death,” Gerzofsky said. “I want to work out the funding before we vote on a motion of ought to pass. Because I know it’s not leaving this room today. We’ve heard from the analyst more than once that this has to come back. And at that time, any member of this committee can bring it back to be discussed and revoted. And that will be the final vote.”
MFPC’s opposition to LD 297 is based on policy, not funding, Executive Director Patrick Strauch stressed.
“To us, forest rangers are – first and foremost – fire fighters and that’s what we want to them to remain,” Strauch said. “The more they get pulled into law enforcement, the more they get pulled away from their real mission and the more danger they will be in, because they will end up backing up state troopers, wardens and deputies.”
Cost was, however, clearly on committee member’s minds at Wednesday’s work session and for good reason. Funding turned out to be the deciding issue on bills to arm rangers in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Despite the lack of a fiscal note, there was at least a hint of the potential cost of LD 297 as John Rogers, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, presented four options to the committee:
- Option 1, don’t arm rangers: “Total Cost – None.”
- Option 2, the one the committee chose, would cost $142,837 to buy handguns, gun belts, holsters, ballistic vests and 1,500 rounds of ammunition for each ranger, and a 64-hour training program – “the very minimum,” Rogers called it. But that figure did not include “unknown salary costs, policy formulation costs, lock boxes, and ongoing training to be determined by the Maine Forest Service.”
- Option 3, for $238,426, Rogers said, is the level that “part-time officers have to go through now – 120 hours of training, plus 80 hours of field training.” But like Option 2, it did not include “unknown salary costs, policy formulation costs, lock boxes, and ongoing training to be determined by the Maine Forest Service.”
- Option 4, for $2.1 million, included putting all rangers through the Basic Law Enforcement Training Program (BLETP), “plus lock boxes, policy formulation costs, and ongoing training to be determined by the Maine Forest Service.”
It appears the committee intends to leave the policy formulation and ongoing training for the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee to sort out. They approved sending a letter to the ACF chairs suggesting “that they need to revisit the issue of the Forest Service’s mission,” said Rep. Mark N. Dion, D-Portland and co-chair.
Even though the majority voted for Option 2, committee members clearly were concerned about even its minimal price tag. For example, Sen. David E. Dutremble, D-York, suggested eliminating ballistic vests to save $69,412, adding “and then if rangers want to purchase their own vest, they could do that.”
Cost has played a pivotal role in the legislative fate of previous bills. A bill scraped through the Maine House in 1997 – by just three votes – and cleared the Senate 22-10. The initial idea was that rangers would carry their own weapons and bear all training costs. But then a fiscal note appeared saying, “the rules that are adopted could result in significant General Fund costs. Rules that require all forest rangers to carry a department issued weapon could result in additional General Fund appropriations of as much as $200,000 for the first year of implementation and approximately $70,000 for every year thereafter.” The bill was “indefinitely postponed,” even though the state had a $183 million surplus that year.
In 1999, rangers came very close to getting guns with Department of Conservation funding, until “The Debacle,” as Ron Lovaglio, then DOC commissioner calls it. The ACF Committee directed Lovaglio to address ranger safety issues, including the process of arming them. Department policy already allowed rangers to carry firearms with approval from supervisors to dispatch problem animals or deal with “special situations.” So Lovaglio told the Maine Forest Service to begin planning, buying equipment and training rangers. The funding was to come from “reallocating priorities,” meaning some other spending would be put off. But Lovaglio, who opposed (and still does) arming rangers, still hoped legislators would “rethink the equation” before rangers put a 9 mm Beretta on their belts. He got his wish in a way that surprised him – in a discussion of a bill to appropriate $125,000 to renovate Fort Knox.
Rep. Eliza Townsend, then House chair of the Appropriations Committee, asked Lovaglio why the Conservation Department could not pay to repair Fort Knox, but could find the money to buy guns. The department already had accumulated $200,000 to spend on arming rangers by taking money from several other fire control accounts. The cost of arming rangers then was estimated at from $250,000 to $500,000.
“It’s absolutely inappropriate to do it this way,” Townsend said. “I do not expect them to skim a certain amount of money off other accounts to pay for guns.”
In a joint order, legislators told the ACF Committee to sort out the questions and come back with a bill next session. They also ordered Lovaglio to sell the handful of guns and bulletproof vests already purchased.
In 2000, the cost was estimated at $280,000 to $500,000, and the House rejected arming rangers 106-34. Although the Senate passed a watered-down version of the bill, the House adhered to its vote and the bill died between the two houses.
In 2001, the House rejected the idea 116-22. According to the Bangor Daily News, “Once the House learned that the bill would cost $550,000 to implement, then $25,000 per year in additional training costs, the measure was quickly defeated.”
MFPC member Eric Kingsley of Innovative Natural Resource Solutions emailed us about this wonderful video, saying. “I thought you might enjoy this video (5 min) telling the story of family owned lumber mills. It is set in Maine, but it is really the story of the industry. This was done by my friends at the SOAP Group, and strikes me as the kind of thing we need more of. Enjoy.”
Featured in the video are, from Robbins Lumber, Jim Sr., Jim Jr., Catherine and Alden Robbins, and from Pleasant River Lumber, Luke, Chris and Jason Brochu.
In his blog, John Rooks of the SOAP Group said: “For 12 years I’ve been lucky enough to work with the Northeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association [NELMA]. They were a client before SOAP was born. And they have continually pushed us to do some of our most innovative work. Lately, we’ve been interviewing NELMA members to document the long history of family-run lumber mills in the Northeast. The stories are very much about the culture of sustainability in the lumber industry.”
Emotions ran high and hot Wednesday on LD 297, a bill that would arm Maine’s forest rangers. In a hearing that lasted five hours, there were raised voices, insults followed by back-handed apologies, questions that shouldn’t have been asked and others that couldn’t be answered.
“It’s one of those issues where you’re on one side or the other and that’s where you’re going to stay,” said Doug Denico, director of the Maine Forest Service (MFS). “It’s a really difficult subject.”
Opponents and supporters had the same goal – the safety of rangers – but supporters were certain that guns would make rangers safer and opponents were equally certain that guns would put them in more danger, because they would be called into more dangerous situations. Written testimony from 35 people, including 18 forest rangers, is posted online. Only a handful testified in opposition, including MFPC. But it was what people asked, answered and expressed spontaneously that was most compelling. It also was troubling for people who usually work in harmony in the Maine woods to find themselves so divided.
“All my life I’ve had tremendous respect for the foresters and rangers of the Maine Forest Service,” Jim Robbins Sr. of Robbins Lumber, an MFPC Board member, told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “This is a difficult session this afternoon and it pains me to testify in opposition to this bill and make it look like I don’t care about those rangers and those foresters. Believe me, I consider them some of the most professional, wonderful people in the State of Maine and I don’t want to see them get hurt. But I honestly feel that if this bill is passed and they are armed, that they’ll be in more danger than they are now.”
There also was a clear division between those who view forest rangers as firefighters who enforce forest protection laws, and those who see rangers primarily as law enforcement officers – “the people who protect us,” as one committee member put it.
Other bills about arming rangers came before the Legislature in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001, but they were heard in the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, which oversees MFS and is familiar with rangers and their work. In contrast, Criminal Justice has oversight over law enforcement issues and several committee members have law enforcement experience. Some of them were baffled that anyone would object to arming rangers.
“All rangers want is to stay safe,” Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland and co-chair of the committee, said to SWOAM Director Tom Doak. “I’m having a hard time understanding why there would be resistance to the fact that they would be armed. I think they’re the same person, they’d provide the same service. So help me understand why we’re hung up on the fact that they can’t have a tool to protect themselves and maybe one of us in another agency. They can step up and save our lives, which we would appreciate.”
Doak, a former MFS director, responded that first there should be “a conversation about the best way to keep rangers safe.” He urged legislators to take a hard look at how the rangers’ job has evolved before deciding that guns are the answer. Until about 20 years ago, the Forest Protection Division consisted of a mix of seasonal and year-around firefighters. It was only after the Forest Practices Act was passed that the division became a full time year-around professional staff with steadily increasing law enforcement responsibilities.
If they are armed, “I think it’s reasonable to expect that they will be involved in more dangerous situations. They will be asked more and more to be involved in those situations,” Doak said. “I look at the immense job that rangers are charged with – fire control, Forest Practices, shoreland zoning — and this is an enormous job and they are uniquely qualified. They’re unique and that’s more than a full-time job right there.”
Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, cross-examined Doak about the Commercial Forestry Excise Tax (CFET). Doak told him that it’s a tax paid by everyone who owns more than 500 acres and that revenues go into the general fund, but suggested that the committee invite an expert to explain the tax in detail.
“I’ll be very direct,” Wilson said. “I was told directly prior to today’s public hearing that the opposition largely would come from those that would essentially stand to lose money in the event that arming forest rangers came at an increased cost, which would then cost essentially large landowners more money in the way of tax. So if you’re not capable of answering that question I would ask for anybody else that is going to testify to please provide information that may be helpful in getting the answer to that question.”
Wilson then glared at the audience as if daring someone to come forward. No one did.
Doak waited a moment, then responded, “I can only say that the people we deal with are not generally involved in paying that tax and my discussion or opposition has nothing to do with cost. That’s not the issue.”
Rep. Tim Marks, D-Pittston, who was a state trooper for 25 years, questioned MFPC Executive Director Patrick Strauch about what rangers should do when people “come to you and expect you to solve their immediate crisis – are you going to stand there and say, ‘Oh, you better call somebody else. We’re not equipped to do that.’”
Strauch answered, “I think rangers are equipped with good communication. That’s their strongest tool – being able to call in other resources. We have a lot of needs – watching over the Forest Practices Act and primarily for forest fire control.”
“Do you have any idea how many game wardens are working right now or how many troopers are working right now in the State of Maine – on duty in uniform right now?” Marks asked.
Stauch responded, “I know it’s not enough. But I would say that’s a different question. Are we talking about creating another law enforcement division?”
It was Denico, though, who was questioned longest and hardest. Dion challenged his concern for forest rangers, saying, “When I was placed in command of men and women, my first duty, my first mission, was to them and their safety. And I’m curious that you began by saying your first duty was to 17 million acres. That’s troubling, all right?”
Denico responded in a voice that shook with emotion. “You’re reading something into something that wasn’t said in the way that you’re interpreting it. My duty – my statutory duty – is to the resource. What my own concerns are you can ask the rangers in this room or anywhere else. I’ve probably spent more time out with the rangers than any other state forester ever has. I’ve broke bread with them from Fort Kent to southern Maine. I don’t think anyone has spent the time with them that I have. I do look out for what they do and for their safety, and I’m convinced – I’m convinced thoroughly – that when they’re armed, they are going to be in more danger then they are now. I’m convinced of that. Absolutely convinced of it.”
Rep. Wilson responded, “I can see you’re passionate about your positions. But I want to know specifically if you have law enforcement experience yourself, meaning have you been a sworn law enforcement officer now or ever in your life?”
Wilson’s tone was so scornful that he later told Denico, “I didn’t mean to insult you.”
But Denico simply answered, “No.” In fact, no one can remember any MFS director with a law enforcement background. Most, if not all, have been foresters, because protecting forests is the mission of the Maine Forest Service.
A few minutes later, Corey again aggressively questioned Denico. “You said that the Department of Public Safety has made statements to you that they would utilize them (rangers) for law enforcement duties, in a different way than they are utilized now, today. My question is very specific. I want to know who at the Department of Public Safety said that. Are you talking about the commissioner? Who in the Department of Public Safety suggested they would utilize them in a different manner than what their current operational functions are? Can you tell me that please?”
Denico responded, “I think what I would do is have the commissioner of Public Safety here for your work session and people from criminal justice here, rather than you having to take my word. That’s what I would suggest you do.”
At that point Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, co-chair, broke in, defusing the increasingly tense situation by asking Denico if the forest rangers’ core mission is fighting fires. When Denico said that it was, Gerzokfsky said, “And we don’t arm firefighters.”
Gerzofsky also asked Denico, “Do you have a history of rangers being shot?”
Denico told him the story of the most serious injury to a forest ranger that anyone recalls. In 1989, a Washington County deputy asked a ranger to help him locate a man who had requested urgent medical aid. When they pulled into the man’s driveway, he began firing. The deputy radioed for help and backed the cruiser to a safer spot. They stopped traffic, warned neighbors and took up a defensive position behind a building. But as they waited for reinforcements, the man fired from behind them, hitting the ranger, who spent six weeks recovering. Lack of a gun wasn’t an issue; the ranger was holding the deputy’s shotgun when he was shot. State police later stormed the mobile home and arrested the gunman, who got a lengthy sentence for attempted murder. In the past 20 years, according to workers comp records, not one forest ranger has suffered violence-related injuries on the job.
“The only one I know I who was shot was in possession of a shotgun when he was shot. The only one I know of – and he wasn’t really in the line of duty,” Denico said. “He was dragged into it by a deputy sheriff.”
After a few more questions, Gerzofsky turned to Wilson and said, “OK. Rep Wilson did you have a question?”
There was a long pause. “I withdraw my question,” Wilson said.
In the end, Denico stood at the podium for 40 long minutes explaining why the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry opposes arming rangers. He made it clear he didn’t discount rangers concerns about their safety.
“I believe firmly that arming them escalates their risk,” he said. “And I also believe that they believe their feelings. I’d be a fool to say that they don’t have legitimacy in how they feel.”
But Denico also strongly urged everyone, especially legislators to examine the facts. Rangers file “Use of Force” reports when they feel threatened or when force is used in their presence, such as when state police or wardens take a person into custody. Of the 19 incidents reported since 2008, 17 took place in organized townships, where other law enforcement officers were available, and two in unorganized territory. Forest rangers have carried pepper spray for years, but only one ranger has ever used it and that was against a threatening dog in 2008.
“Very few confrontational situations occur and weapons are rarely involved,” Denico said. “In the past five years – and these are the most recent years, I’m not talking about times before bath salts; I’m talking bath salts era – six incidents were reported involving rangers in which either a weapon was involved or a confrontation became physical,” Denico said. “A guy came out on the porch and had a gun, I don’t know why he had a gun, but he put it down no problem. In another instance a guy had a knife in his pocket. A dog got sprayed with pepper spray. Someone touched someone on the chest with a hand. That’s what we’re dealing with.”
Denico mentioned bath salts because LD 297 supporters did. There were a number of what-if scenarios, such as rangers discovering armed drunks at a bonfire, abusive husbands beating wives, people high on drugs such as bath salts. MFS policies, training and directives are all intended to keep forest rangers out of risky situations. They don’t make arrests or execute search warrants, Denico said. They have the authority, but by policy can use it only in extreme circumstances.
“What we are about is changing behaviors, about educating, about talking to people,” Denico said. “And then after that you do warnings and after that you may have to make a summons. I’ve yet to find where we’ve arrested anybody. The only times I could find was when they were done by either a game warden or a state trooper.”
He also told legislators that MFS is willing to change everything from policies to rangers’ uniforms to make them safer, a sentiment that was also expressed by Strauch and Doak.
“If having arrest power is a problem, we can get rid of that because we are not using it,” Denico said. “I’ve heard several times today that a uniform is kind of like a red flag to a bull. We can change that. We can change the uniforms. We do not have to scream that we are law enforcement in order to be effective.”
But one thing that he hopes will not change is the trust and confidence that forest rangers have earned from the public.
“Most of the forest rangers know these people, they’ve gone to school with them,” Denico said.”If a ranger shows up now, you know if something is wrong you’re going to talk it out. That’s the bottom-line, because there is no gun there. If you show up in a gun, you’ve suddenly entered into a new reality. The bottom-line now is that someone’s got the capability to shoot a gun. That takes the situation from a discussion to a whole other level.”
As every logger knows, forestry is as much about transportation as it is about trees. You’ve got wood growing in some hard-to-reach spot, but it’s relatively worthless unless you can get it to the marketplace. Comstock Woodlands of Hampden specializes in meeting that challenge in the north Maine woods, one of the most remote, challenging logging locations in the lower 48 states.
Thanks to its never-say-can’t culture, Comstock was named the 2013 National Outstanding Logger by the Forest Resources Association at its April 19 Annual Awards Banquet in Jacksonville, Fla. The Forest Resources Association Inc., based in Washington D.C. is a nonprofit trade association concerned with the safe, efficient, and sustainable harvest of forest products and their transport from woods to mill.
“I am very proud that our employees’ efforts has allowed them to receive national recognition,” Comstock President Brian Bouchard said Monday. “They truly deserve this recognition!”
The winner is selected from the nation’s top logging companies, which are nominated from six regions across the country. Comstock was nominated by the Maine Forest Products Council, which represents all segments of the state’s forest industry. Two other Maine logging companies have won the FRA’s national award: Don Paradis in 1995 and David and Kurt Babineau, of West Enfield in 2008.
“Thank you and congratulations to all of you again for all the good work you’ve done,” FRA Chairman Tom Norris told Bouchard, who was presented with a plaque and a $1,000 check.
Three generations of the Bouchard family –Brian, his son Jeff, and his father Harold, who died Feb. 22 at the age of 77 – have helped revolutionize Maine’s harvesting and transport services. They’ve spotted some opportunities and created others through their commitment to their clients and their determination to stay competitive.
“They are star performers out of the 40 plus contractors we engage … They are old school in a way, which is to say that they always do the right thing and their word is their bond,” said Don White, former president of Prentiss & Carlisle and MFPC. “One can have a 50-pound legal contract with someone and still not get what you agreed to or you can get a handshake from the Bouchard family or its crew and you will get what you agreed to, and more.”
Started in 1991, Comstock Woodlands is based in Comstock Township, only 30 miles from Maine’s northwest border with Quebec Province. From Comstock’s complex off the fabled Golden Road, 37 employees spread across 25 townships and more than 500,000 acres to harvest wood and maintain roads. The facility has an on-site camp with housing units for up to 50, a connected kitchen and dining area, hot showers, wi-fi and satellite TV.
“A big piece of our success is our people,” Brian Bouchard said. “You’ve got to have good, sound, quality people and be willing to pay them to work hard for four days and spend only three days at home with their families. They come to Comstock from Bangor, Millinocket, Fort Kent and from Saint-Zacharie, Quebec. It’s very difficult, but these are people who are diehards for the woods. “It’s their heritage.”
All of Comstock’s loggers are certified by Maine’s Certified Logging Professional program and the company has an exemplary safety record.
“From the top down, management takes a personal interest to promote a positive safety awareness and culture,” said Mike St. Peter, CLP program director. “Supervisors with ‘boots on the ground’ reinforce the safety message daily. This leadership by example makes the difference.”
Winter is a challenge and advantage
The challenge for Comstock begins with the distance from “civilization.” Many loggers drive an hour, maybe two, to their work site. But they don’t have to be totally self-sufficient two hours up in the woods. Comstock loggers can’t zip over to the store for a loaf of bread, a hydraulic fitting or even a simple bolt.
Then there’s the weather. The average snowfall is around 115 inches, but a “real” Maine winter can be far above average. In 2008, for example, the national weather service in Caribou (about 200 miles northeast by the Golden Road) recorded 189 inches of snow. That’s 15 feet, 9 inches. If Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers stood on the shoulders of Patriots QB Tom Brady they’d still be buried in that amount of snow.
Then there’s the temperature. The lowest last year was 20 degrees below zero, but the record (at least 40 miles away in Jackman) is minus 40.
Nor is summer a stroll in the park. The biting bugs alone can drive moose, much less men, mad.
“In Maine, we have such a variety of weather, conditions, grounds, terrains, mills and different species of wood that you have to be extremely flexible to be able to service the needs of your customer,” Brian said. “We don’t just harvest 205,000 tons of wood a year. In order for us to do so, we have to have the capability to cut right of ways, build the roads and maintain the roads – grading, plowing, sanding in the wintertime – culvert replacements and close-out work. We build bridges. We replace bridges.”
In fact, the Bouchards consider the ice, snow and cold weather an advantage. They can build a road anywhere after December 15 on nothing but black muck and water and snow. While building a road in summer costs from $18,000-$22,000 a mile, in winter it’s about $5,000.
“In the wintertime, where you’re going to go into these swamps,” Harold said in an interview last December. “You cut the wood first with a feller-buncher, then you send an excavator out there with a small dozer right behind to pull out the stumps, bury them. They’ll build at least a half a mile a day. And about 10 above to 10 below, a half a mile you build today, you can truck on it tomorrow morning.”
‘Poverty is a great asset’
Harold Bouchard was one of 16 children of Franco-American heritage who grew up on a potato farm in Fort Kent “where English was not an important thing.” When he was 16, one brother was a POW in the Korean War and another had been severely injured by a woods accident. So Harold left school to help his father plant their crop. That was the end of his formal education.
His business career started in 1958 with the purchase (his dad co-signed) of a 1957 Dodge truck. At age 23, he drove off to a two-week job in Bangor, but that job led to another and another.
“When I took off in my truck and left the farm it was quite a relief to get away from the cows,” Harold said with a big laugh. “But I am pleased that I was brought up to earn a living. Poverty is a great asset.”
His Franco-American heritage can be heard not only in his gentle accent, but in his attitude. For many years now, a small plaque has been sitting on Harold’s desk with four simple words on it, “It CAN be done.”
“There were work ethics that were built into our background,” Brian said. “Going at projects where the word ‘can’t’ doesn’t apply. Going at it like you can do it.”
With pride, Brian tells the story – now legend— of how his father drove the first tractor-trailer to Bucksport on Route 9, aka “the Airline,” in 1963. Pointing to a photo on the wall, Brian said, “My dad said, ‘I’m going to take four-foot wood to Bucksport down the Airline with that trailer. They told him, ‘You’re crazy, it can’t be done.’ The road was too narrow, too winding, it wasn’t in their minds safe to use a tractor trailer. He said, ‘Watch.’”
The company’s success also can be traced back to an historic moment in Maine’s legendary logging industry. Starting in 19th century, Maine’s rivers moved enormous amounts of timber from the north woods to towns where they could be milled and loaded on ships. In 1971, log drives were banned by a law that unfolded over several years. The last major log drive in the lower 48 took place on the Kennebec River on Nov. 16, 1975.
“There was such a big waste of wood,” Harold said. “They took it for granted that X amount of wood would sink, never to be reclaimed. Then we had to build roads to bring the same amount of wood to the mills without log drive. And that’s when we really started doing some serious trucking.”
A new era in Maine logging
In 1972, Harold was one of the contractors Great Northern hired to build the Golden Road, stretching about 100 miles, from Millinocket to the Quebec border. By the mid 1990s, 25,000 miles of roads had been built.
H.O. Bouchard became one of the principal trucking firms for Great Northern Paper Co., which built its first mill in 1898 and became a giant of the Maine forest economy. In 1964, Great Northern produced 16.4 percent of newsprint made in the United States, plus specialty papers for magazines, newspaper supplements, paperback books, and catalogs. Although H.O. Bouchard also did some logging, its primary focus from 1972 to 1990 was trucking wood to Great Northern’s mills.
“We had some long hours on the Golden Road in the first few years. It was tough,” Harold remembers. “A lot of times, I’d say, ‘Did I dig myself a hole here?’ But there was so much energy that I was blessed with that I’d overcome that and retool myself and go at it again. When my friends and competitors said, ‘Harold you’re not going to make it,’ that gave me motivation.”
In 1990, a dramatic change took place in the company and the industry after a hostile takeover of Great Northern by Georgia Pacific. GP didn’t want to operate logging camps, manage roads or have employees in the woods. So H.O. Bouchard was asked to take over Great Northern’s Comstock operation (named for Comstock Mountain), which meant buying the camps, building, plowing and sanding the roads, cutting wood and delivering it to the mills.
“If we hadn’t done it one of our competitors would have, so we did it,” Brian said.
Since no one could predict the outcome of such an enormous undertaking, a decision was made “to separate the highway from the woods.” Comstock was born and H.O. Bouchard’s name disappeared from forest harvesting and road building. Officially, the two companies share benefits and the annual Christmas party. But in practice, they share their history, work ethic and the strong belief that they are all one family.
“I would be comfortable saying that most Comstock employees feel they also work for H.O. Bouchard,” Jeff Bouchard said. “Everyone knows it’s two companies, but everyone feels they work for the Bouchard family.”
In addition to believing there’s no such word as can’t, Comstock/H.O. Bouchard’s guiding principles are:
Safety, Safety, Safety: Safety has always been, and will continue to be number one at H.O. Bouchard. Every employee has the responsibility to make sure himself and others are working in the safest way possible. Caring about the safety of our customers, the products we haul, and our employees will always be the number one concern for H.O. Bouchard.
Family atmosphere: Ever since Harold drove his first truck in 1958, he’s had the philosophy that everyone around him should be treated as family and that continues today. It has stuck with the company ever since and has allowed us to develop the incredible group of employees we have working today.
Teamwork: Everyone at H.O. Bouchard works together as a team to ensure that operations are done properly and in the fastest, most efficient way possible. It is a team effort around the home facility which helps to keep everyone involved in the success of the company on all levels within the organization.
In practice, there are two other unwritten laws. Harold sums up the first one this way: “If you commit yourself to a customer, the main thing is to make sure what you committed to happens at any cost.”
The second is: “You’ve got to be creative to be competitive.” The list of company innovations ranges from the mechanical, such as a “scarifier” that works better and cheaper than two road graders, to the psychological – having the courage to go forward when others believe you can’t succeed.
“They’ve seen how things could be improved at every step, from the political process to the configuration of the trailers and trucks, to the equipment to get the loads on the trucks and trailers, to maintaining the equipment, to the motivation of the people,” said safety director Steve Whitcomb, a 35-year employee.
Helped found ALC and PLC
The Bouchard family helped found both the American Loggers Council (ALC) and the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine (PLC) and has served on both boards. In 1994, Harold and General Manager Dick Schneider flew to Nashville and St. Louis to assist in the formation of ALC, with logging contractors from several states. PLC was formed at the Comstock Woodlands/H.O. Bouchard office in Hampden by Harold, Brian, and other Maine logging leaders.
“The formation of both associations came at about the same time because landowners and major mills were putting emphasis on SFI and loggers needed a voice in the process,” Brian said.
They are members of the Maine Motor Transport Association, where Brian served as chairman in 2006 and 2007 and then as chairman of the Executive Committee in 2008 and 2009. He remains an officer. He has been on the board of the Maine Better Transport Association since 2009. They also belong to FRA and NELA.
Played pivotal role on federal law
In the early 1980s, Harold also played a prominent role in the successful effort to convince Maine lawmakers to adopt a six-axle truck configuration at a more productive weight limit. More recently, Brian and Jeff played pivotal roles in the battle to increase the 80,000-pound limit to 100,000 pounds on trucks traveling on interstate highways in Maine for the next 20 years. Brian worked closely with Maine Sen. Susan Collins and, as part of an important study, Jeff traveled from Hamden to Houlton with a truck driver counting every car they met and every railroad crossing, school bus, crosswalk and streetlight. He noted every time the driver shifted or touched his brakes. On Friday, Nov. 18, 2011, President Obama signed the increase into law.
“The Bouchard family provided me with specific information and real-life examples, which helped me articulate the problem and convince my colleagues in both the House and Senate that this improvement was necessary for the safety of Maine’s citizens,” Sen. Collins said.
The Bouchards and their employees also strongly support many humanitarian causes in their community and beyond. Most recently they provided a truck to the Girls Scouts so supplies could be sent to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. In September, 22 employees, family members and friends joined the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Bangor and the company recently gave a very generous donation to the local Cancer Care of Maine facility in Brewer. They also provide trucks for local parades, including a lowbed to Air National Guard to use for their “Family Support Program” float.
When he drove away in his 1957 Dodge, Harold said, he never imagined how far he and his family would travel from that potato farm.
“At the Christmas party this year,” Harold said, “when I looked at our employees and their wives filling the room, I thought, “I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished.”
MFPC members appreciate all the work that the Maine Forest Service and forest rangers do to protect forests, especially in their essential role to prevent and combat fires. According to the Maine Forest Service – Statewide weekly summary 2010, the MFS spent 91,340 hours on fire control efforts and 32,651 on non fire activities.
We strongly support the mission of the MFS Division of Forest Protection, which is “to protect homes and Maine’s forest resources from wildfire, respond to disasters and emergencies and to enhance the safe, sound, and responsible management of the forest for this and future generations.”
The public hearing on LD 297, the bill that would arm Maine’s forest rangers, is set for Wednesday (April 24) at 1 p.m., at the State House, Room 436. We hope MFPC members will testify at the hearing or send their opinions to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
The safety of forest rangers is very important to MFPC, so we have researched this issue thoroughly. We requested statistics and other information from the Maine Forest Service, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the Maine Department of Labor and are happy to share them with you. We’ve also reviewed a study by Maine’s Ranger Safety Review Committee, which considered this issue carefully when the Legislature was asked to arm rangers in the late 1990s.
After careful consideration, MFPC will oppose LD 297 because:
- Forest rangers already are armed with good sense, caution and the ability to anticipate when they should enlist back-up from state police, game wardens and local police officers.
- As the Ranger Safety Review Committee concluded in 1998, forest rangers overall risk of serious injury or death is the same with or without guns.
- Equipping, training and retraining rangers to carry guns would divert time and resources from their mission – protecting the forests of Maine.
- Wearing a gun would change the relationship of trust and confidence that exists between Maine’s forest rangers and the public. We would rather change the job to further minimize risk, than see that trust and confidence diminish.
Maine legislators rejected bills to arm rangers by overwhelming margins in 1999, 2000 and 2001. We agree with those legislators and with Ron Lovaglio, former Conservation commissioner and current MFPC member, who opposed arming rangers, saying in 2000, “It’s not our mission to be a strike force. We have been unarmed since our beginning and we have done our job exceedingly well.”
The amended Bonded Labor Equipment Ownership Rules that were approved last session could be jeopardized if the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee rejects LD 1259, the resolve that provides for legislative review of the rule changes, which were processed over the past year. That means we would return to landowner penalties, requirements for a industry supported clearing house, and unrealistic penalties for contractors using bonds. Please let members of the LCRED Committee know you are concerned about breaking the compromise reached last session.
In addition to the firearms and rangers bill, we will be focused next week on:
- The ongoing discussions about the merger of the ACF department continues at a work session on LD 837, Wednesday, 1 p.m. at the State House, Room 127.
- Managing the series of wind power bills that relate to land use: LDs 385,1147 and 1323.
- Continuing to monitor LD 1177, An Act To Implement the Recommendations from the Discontinued and Abandoned Roads Stakeholder Group
- LD 1356, An Act To Improve the Statutes Governing Road Associations, which has its public hearing in the Transportation Committee Friday at 9 a.m. in Room 126.
We will keep you posted on budget discussions (including BETR) and ongoing debates about workers compensation laws.
On Wednesday, April 24, the Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC) and Northern Maine Development Commission (NMDC) will be holding the first meeting on the community guided planning and zoning project for unorganized territories and townships in Aroostook County. This will be the first of several meetings to determine overall regional interest and to develop a framework for the community guided planning and zoning process. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. at the Caribou Inn and Convention Centre in Caribou and is expected to end at about noon. The meeting is open to the public. Below is a press release from NMDC which explains the project and the purpose of this first meeting in greater detail.
AROOSTOOK COUNTY — The first steps in a community guided planning and zoning project for unorganized territories and townships are under way in Aroostook.
In February, the Maine Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC) selected Aroostook County as the initial region to participate in a series of local workshops to help determine overall regional interest and, if interest is confirmed, further develop a framework for the community guided planning and zoning process. The LUPC is currently working with Northern Maine Development Commission (NMDC) to plan for and schedule the workshops.
“Right now we are working to set up a steering committee made up of 12 people who represent the unorganized areas and neighboring communities, made up of large and small landowners, businesses owners, agricultural interests, environmental organizations, tribal representatives, and others. This steering committee will work with NMDC, the LUPC and a consultant to set up the process of how we should be doing this and what are the issues we should be examining,” said Jay Kamm, NMDC senior planner.
Kamm added the first three meetings of the steering committee, although open to the public, are just to develop the framework for the actual planning sessions, which should begin in June.
“When the steering committee meets for the first time on April 24th at the Caribou Inn and Convention Centre, we will be planning the process and developing a work plan,” he said.
Recent efforts to improve the effectiveness of managing land use in the unorganized and deorganized areas of Maine have focused in part on the need for more locally guided and proactive planning for these areas. The 2010 Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) identifies this type of planning, referred to as prospective zoning, as a priority for implementation. In addition, a directive to initiate prospective zoning is included in recent legislation. “The Land Use Planning Commission sees this initiative as creating opportunities for locally-driven, well-planned development in rural parts of the state” said Nicholas Livesay, the LUPC’s Executive Director.
“Having local control and obtaining local input into land use planning in the unorganized townships will, in the long run produce a better and regionally accepted product as opposed to one that is developed in a centralized Augusta location,” added Kamm. “It’s coming from bottom up as opposed to top down.”
Kamm said after the initial pre-planning meetings public input will be needed to look at all the issues in the unorganized townships.
Once the entire planning process is done, which may take up to 18 months, recommendations will be made to LUPC.
“There is an opportunity to strengthen the economic development potential and protect the environment in the unorganized territories by looking at the zoning and land use activities there,” Kamm said. “Is what’s on the ground there now make sense with future plans.”
For more information please contact:
Hugh Coxe, Senior Planner, Maine Land Use Planning Commission, (207) 287-2662, email@example.com
Jay Kamm, Senior Planner, Northern Maine Development Commission, (207) 498-8736, JKamm@nmdc.org