Contacts: Amy Higgins, (207) 287-2735
Jeanne Curran, (207) 287-3156
Commissioners Hear Stakeholders Comments on New Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Department
(June 25, 2012)
ORONO, Maine – Agriculture, forestry, outdoor-recreation and university representatives all had their say Friday about the pending merger of the Maine departments of Conservation and Agriculture into a new state agency, Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (MDACF).
About 50 people representing a broad spectrum of natural-resource interests, including several state legislators, took part in an afternoon stakeholders meeting at the Buchanan Alumni House at the University of Maine. While those who spoke generally supported the merger, they also urged department officials to continue the same high level of support and professional quality of relationships in the new department that they have experienced in the past with the two existing agencies.
Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb, MDACF commissioner-designee, and Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley both acknowledged those concerns and assured those attending the meeting that they would be listened to and considered.
“Gov. LePage has initiated this bold effort joining two natural resource-focused agencies to strengthen state support and to grow the value of the agricultural, conservation and forest resources,” Commissioner Whitcomb emphasized in his opening remarks. “... These soon-to-be-joined agencies will provide a wide range of services to all the people of Maine, from maintaining accessible state park facilities to ensuring that the food we eat is safe.”
Commissioner Beardsley agreed that balancing Maine’s natural resources and quality of life while creating an environment that is vital and attractive to economic development was important to the new department.
“Our shared goal is not simply to sustain but rather to enhance the value of the natural resources we own and use and care about,” Commissioner Beardsley said. “We are here to learn what you want us to do.”
In May, Gov. Paul LePage signed a supplemental budget that created the new department. The MDACF organization creates one commissioner and two deputy-commissioner positions, while eliminating one commissioner’s position.
The new department will have 732 full-time and seasonal employees and have a budget of $96.5 million. It will be organized into seven divisions, joining together the same divisions and bureaus of the two existing departments.
As part of the merger initiative, the two commissioners have organized several stakeholder meetings around Maine to garner viewpoints from all those who will be associated with the new department. Friday’s session was the first to be held; a second meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, June 26, in Augusta, with a third one tentatively scheduled in August in Caribou.
Both departments have very close working relationships with the University of Maine. The first session in Orono included many university officials.
The two state officials presented a slide show that described their existing departments and the organization of the new MDACF, “to give you a flavor of the realm of responsibilities,” as Commissioner Whitcomb said. Several UM officials then made their own supportive remarks about the merger, highlighting their existing and potential relationships with the two departments.
Dean Edward Ashworth of the UM Department of Natural Sciences, Forestry and Agriculture and Provost Susan Hunter represented the university during the session. Robert Wagner of the UM School of Forestry said he trusted that the new department would continue to be a strong voice supporting forestry within state government. Noting the significant cooperation with both departments in the past, John Rebar of the UM Cooperative Extension urged that a team approach be used to solve problems, such as the threat of invasive species, and that the effective relationships between field staff continue.
“That’s where the real work gets done,” he said.
Supporting the merger, several speakers expressed concern that their particular interest areas might get lost in the organization of the larger department. Some in particular wanted to make sure that forestry interests still continue to get a high level of attention.
Commissioner Whitcomb acknowledged those comments, however, and thanked all those present for attending, assuring them that within the new department, “the people will be there, and the programs will be there.”
He urged them to continue sharing their interests, adding that public participation from all sectors was very important to the merger process. “Don’t be shy about telling us what you think,” the commissioner stressed.
The vision, Commissioner Whitcomb said, “is to put all those forces together to achieve those things we can’t do individually.”
For more information about the new Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, go to: http://www.maine.gov/acf