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Lawmakers Hear Testimony on Proposed Merger of Maine Ag and Conservation Depts
03/13/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

In an ongoing effort to increase efficiencies and boost Maine's economy, the LePage administration wants to merge the Departments of Agriculture and Conservation. The two agencies share similar interests, and the thought is that combining them will create a more powerful, unified voice in Washington. While the commissioners from both departments support the merger, some farmers and environmental groups say both sides could lose in the deal.

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If you ask both Commissioner Bill Beardsley of the Department of Conservation and Walt Whitcomb of the Department of Agriculture, they'll tell you that merging their agencies is just plain common sense. Here's Whitcomb:

"These are the entities that really I think nurture the land," he says. "These are the people who are the forest interests or recreational interests or interests as diverse as the maple industry and cross country skiing and our farming community. They all have this one common denominator - the land."

And, says Whitcomb, they often have their hands in the same pot. Take the maple industry. Whitcomb says the Department of Agriculture markets and encourages maple syrup production. The Department of Forestry provides technical advice, and the Conservation Department provides thousands of acres of leases for people who harvest maple syrup.

"Perfect example of where you go across the boundaries, where we really shouldn't be trying to make up our minds in different buildings," Whitcomb says.

While the proposed merger isn't being pitched as a cost-cutting measure, Whitcomb says down the road, there likely will be efficiencies and savings. What's more, he says, the two agencies will have a united vision that can only help when they seek federal support.

But some, like former Maine Lawmaker Wendy Pieh, a farmer from Bremen who once chaired the Agriculture Conservation and Forestry Committee, say at their core, each agency's mission is too different to consolidate.

"If you were to ask these two commissioners to outline for you what they do over a week, I don't know how you're going to cover the different needs that are needed by the people of Maine with one commissioner, regardless of knowledge base," Pieh says."

This is one of the main concerns of farmers opposed to the bill: making sure the new commissioner has experience in agriculture. Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb is a dairy farmer, and many say that fact alone goes a long way towards ensuring the agency has a positive approach towards helping farmers comply with regulations.

The fear is if a new commissioner didn't have that same background, the approach may be more "gotcha." Some conservationists share similar fears that their interests could get lost if the proposed merger becomes a reality.

"We don't think that the natural resources that the Department of Conservation is managing should be treated like a crop,"
says Cathy Johnson, the North Woods Project Director for the Resources Council of Maine. She says the language of the bill shifts the focus from conservation towards economic development.

"Even the forests, which some people analogize to be like crops, really are much more," she says. "Yes, trees are harvested like a crop, but they also provide important ecosystem values, wildlife habitat, clean water and so forth."

But the bill did get support from representatives from the logging, forestry, and other natural resource groups, who say it finally puts focus on a vital part of Maine's economy. Others remain on the fence, and that's the position that Lisa Turner, the owner of Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport, was in a few weeks ago. Now, though, she says she supports the bill.

"The department of ag is so helpful to farmers," she says. "It's not like any other agency in the state that I've ever heard anyone talk about. And if you can provide that kind of support to other resource-based businesses," then, she says, it's good for everybody.

As for reconciling the different missions of the two agencies, Turner says just as there's crossover bertween the two agencies, there's crossover on the ground level as well. She says many farmers own woodlots. And between state parks and state fairs, both agriculture and conservation tend to engage in both business and recreation. "Yeah, they're different, but they both have a real diversity within them that I'm not convinced it's that different," she says.

There will be a work session on the bill this Thursday.


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