No Merger In Sight
While the names have merged, little else has changed at the Department of Conservation and the Department of Agriculture, now called the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry.
I’ve just posted news about this issue in my Bangor Daily News blog. In the posting here, I’ll tell you more about my interview yesterday with DACF Commissioner Walt Whitcomb.
During the legislative debate over the proposed merger, someone anonymously sent me a merger plan for the two departments. It was very detailed and thoughtful, and I reported on the details at that time. I was never able to find out who prepared the plan or sent it to me. I asked Walt about specific proposals in the plan.
The plan proposed that Agriculture’s Division of Plant Industry and Conservation’s Division of Forest Health and Monitoring be combined into the Bureau of Forest and Plant Health to “allow for a higher level of collaboration on insect and disease management issues, resulting in an enhanced protection for all trees and crops grown in the state.”
Walt said these two divisions “are working more closely together – meeting together – itemizing specific tasks they can perform together… They get a lot of funding from outside sources,” he noted, “so we’ve got to determine what we are able to do.” In other words, what the funding sources allow.
“Nobody wants to lose anything,” he said, “but we need to make this work better together.”
The merger plan provided to me specifically noted “The United States Department of Agriculture also is responsible for the US Forest Service. The proposed merger allows for Maine to follow the federal model, which creates streamlining and facilitation when dealing with the related federal agencies.”
That plan also proposed merging Agriculture’s Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations with Conservation’s Division of Forest Protection in the Maine Forest Service. “By consolidating many law enforcement functions into the Bureau of Law Enforcement and Protection, there will be an opportunity to streamline most law and rule enforcement into one lead agency, which will eliminate duplication functions,” the plan reported.
Walt told me the Directors of those two divisions met earlier this week, but that Agriculture has no law enforcement duties, other than inspections and, “Ag doesn’t want to go in that direction.”
“We do want to find commonalities,” he said, telling me how he’s using forest rangers to investigate blueberry theft.
The plan proposed to merge Agriculture’s Market and Production Development Division and Conservation’s outreach and education programs to forest landowners and loggers and the Forest Service’s Forest Policy and a Management Division into a Bureau of Planning, Marketing and Utilization, resulting “in a robust and effective tool for farmers and forest landowners by providing technical information through educational workshops, field demonstrations and statistical gathering of all land users.
“Marketing of produce, livestock and forest resources under one entity will benefit all producers as well,” the plan reported. “Additionally, by combining the two agencies’ policy and planning divisions, an integrated approach to managing and guiding the future of the industries can be achieved.”
Whitcomb lamented a lack of marketing money and resources, and said he’d expected former DOC Commissioner Bill Beardsley to take on this assignment as a Deputy Commissioner in the new department. Instead, Beardsley resigned his job on August 29 and left the department.
Walt, who had just returned from a national conference the previous week, talked with me about the fact that many other states are way ahead of us in marketing and other tasks. “The worst thing that happens when states must cut budgets is they cut marketing,” he noted. He plans to fill the new Deputy Commissioner’s position, the one responsible for economics and marketing, sometime soon. He hopes to “expand marketing of the Maine brand,” he said, although without additional money, it’s hard to see how he’s going to do that.
We also discussed some major issues – including groundwater – that are on the horizon, giving me a good indication that Whitcomb is stepping into his new job and role with a high level of interest and excitement. In fact, without his testimony, assurances, and enthusiasm, it’s unlikely the merger would have been approved by the legislature.
Whitcomb has made this department his own. Clearly, he’s got a lot of work to do if a real merger is to ever happen.
PHOTO: ACF Commissioner Walt Whitcomb, on far right, at legislative hearing on the merger of the two departments.