State Park Cuts, the Maine Public Lands Takeover, and $3 Million Missing
ACF Committee Continues Budget Debate Tuesday at 1 p.m.
Thursday, March 30, 2017 9:22 AM
The proposal to cut 24 seasonal state park jobs, increase forest service jobs, and permanently shift Maine Public Lands under the control of the Maine Forest Service did not appear to win support from legislators last week as they started tackling the conservation and forestry part of LePage’s budget.
Camden Hills State Park is among the 48 state parks with increasing numbers of visitors — 158,000 people visited Camden Hills last year. (Photo by Dan Kirchoff)
No money saved by cutting state park staff
Under the LePage plan, 15 seasonal assistant park ranger positions and nine park laborer jobs would be eliminated and replaced with contracted labor, but no cost savings would result.
The proposed cuts come at a time when visits to Maine State Parks are at an all-time high — 2.9 million visitors paid $5.4 million in camping and user fees in 2016, breaking records for both the number of visitors and the amount of revenue collected.
Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (ACF) Director Walt Whitcomb told legislators on the ACF committee that outsourcing jobs would allow remaining staff to focus on other work.
Contracting out park jobs isn’t a new idea. The National Park Service has outsourced some jobs for years, with mixed results, and some state park systems have also adopted the practice. Critics say outsourcing the Maine State Park jobs doesn’t take into account that laborers and rangers put a friendly face on the agency itself, thus acting as informal ambassadors for the state parks system.
The outsourcing proposal also raises the question of whether it is a trial balloon to see if legislators will accept a strategic shift towards cutting more staff in the future and replacing them with contracted workers.
Maine Public Lands: Timber first v. wildlife, recreation, and other values
While the 86,000 acres in the Maine State Park system may get the public’s attention in a way that the 630,000 acres of Maine Public Reserved Lands never quite has, it is the latter that faces deep structural change.
The LePage budget plan proposes to sever the connection between Maine State Parks and Maine Public Reserved Lands, which are currently in the same department: the Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL).
In the 1970s, oversight of the Public Reserved Lands was taken away from the forestry department due to concerns that recreation and wildlife values were being ignored in favor of timber management.
LePage tried and failed to reverse that a few years back. This budget gives it another try by cutting critical staff positions.
The budget, if approved, would leave Tom Desjardins as director of Maine State Parks and permanently eliminate six Public Lands positions, including the BPL?director position, a senior planner position and a position responsible for overseeing conservation easements.
LePage officials are proposing it as an administrative change. In practice, Maine Public Reserved Lands have been under the control of Maine Forest Service Director Doug Denico, a former industry forester, for two years. Denico was put in charge after two BPL directors were forced out by LePage in quick succession in 2015 in the middle of a debate on increased timber harvesting on public lands. Denico supported the increase.
As acting director, Denico’s appointment did not require legislative approval.
Those opposed to putting public lands under the control of the Maine Forest Service do not suggest that sustainable forestry standards that industry uses would not be met, but that the multiple-use forestry approach where the public lands are managed for timber, wildlife, recreation and other values would be slanted towards timber management under Denico’s direction, with other values figuring into decision-making as necessary.
Denico underlined that timber-first approach at the March 23 budget hearings when he talked about the falling market price for logs.
“Prices have dropped and the money isn’t coming in,” he said. “On some jobs, we are losing money on some trees and making it up elsewhere. We want to keep the contractors going, even in the slump, so they will be there when we need them, but we are not going to pick the stands apart and go after yellow birch and sugar maple.”
A legislator asked if those were the more valuable trees.
“Yes,” said Denico. “And we aren’t going to pick and choose.”
The 2016 annual report for Maine Public Reserved Lands, which Denico summarized to the ACF committee last week, offers further insight into his priorities.
The $3 million timber revenue surplus that caught the eye of the governor a couple of years ago is gone. DACF Commissioner Walt Whitcomb confirmed last week that it went to pay contractors and build roads.
In the year that ended last July over 54 miles of logging roads were built, 13 new bridges were installed and three were repaired.
The $5.5 million projected to come in from timber harvesting on Maine Public Reserved Lands in fiscal year 2018 is already tagged for spending right down to the last penny. Two million of it is slated for building and maintaining logging roads.
Poof: The $3 million timber surplus is gone
The governor’s failed attempt to get access to the $3 million led the Legislature to put together a temporary 2015 commission to study the legal uses for how money from the dedicated Maine Public Reserved Lands account could be spent. They found that the state constitution limits spending to the management of Public Reserved Lands or closely related uses.
The commission, which included Denico, agreed on the following guidelines:
- an inventory of what is growing in the Public Reserved Lands forest would be done every five years, with detailed timber harvest data available every year
- establishing more recreational access for the disabled
- increasing recreational opportunities
- increasing logging roads and timber harvest planning
- establishing clear land titles and exchanging lands to consolidate holdings where it made sense to do so
- enhancing training opportunities for young loggers
Sen. Tom Saviello, who co-led the public lands commission, introduced the findings as a bill last year. The governor vetoed it. Saviello introduced it again at a public hearing on Tuesday, with unconcealed frustration that the $3 million had been spent without notice and that the findings of the commission had been ignored.
Saviello said recreation access developed in 2016 was inadequate and that the results of the forest inventory had not been shared with legislators.
“For education, nothing has been done,” he said. Saviello is a strong supporter of training for young loggers.
“Timber harvesting is important, but multiple use on Maine Public Lands is more so,” said Saviello. “There are too many roads in this system.
“Two million going to roads, bridges, and maintenance? That’s all about harvesting, guys. I’m okay with cutting trees, but there is more to public lands than that.”
Tom Abello of The Nature Conservancy was one among many who spoke in favor of Saviello’s bill. Abello also sat on the 2015 public lands commission.
He pointed out the recreation and other projects appeared hand-picked, instead of being part of a larger plan.
“Is there a statewide plan for ADA access?” asked Abello, referring to access to recreation sites under the Americans with Disabilities Act. “That was our goal, not a one-off project.”
Several members of the public testified, emphasizing that in spite of the world-class hiking and views on Maine Public Reserved Lands, they were underpromoted, it was difficult to find trailheads or parking areas, and that trails were often unmaintained, leading potential visitors to go elsewhere, taking their spending money with them.
Denico was the only one who spoke against Saviello’s bill, saying he was disappointed with the criticism.
“Where did the money go? I feel like I’ve been convicted of fraud today,” said Denico.
He said the $3 million had turned out not to be a surplus when timber prices plummeted and revenue shrank, that website improvements provided sufficient trail information, that public lands are meant to provide primitive recreation not to be “loved to death so much that we kill (them).” He also said more roads were needed to get access for timber management.
Details of how the money was spent will be discussed at an upcoming ACF committee work session.