A Maine Department of Conservation plan to raise money by logging state park properties came under fire during a legislative hearing Monday morning.
AUGUSTA A Maine Department of Conservation plan to raise money by logging state park properties came under fire during a legislative hearing Monday morning.
New revenues are desperately needed to fill a budget gap, and harvesting 2,000 to 3,000 acres of park land could raise a half-million dollars over the course of the biennial budget, Deputy DOC Commissioner Karin Tilberg and Bureau of Parks and Lands Director Dave Soucy told members of the Appropriations Committee.
Gov. John Baldacci has proposed flat-funding all state agencies over the next two fiscal years. With increasing health care and retirement costs, however, the Department of Conservation estimated it would need an additional $4.4 million to maintain current programs.
Although the $22.5 million the department received from the state this fiscal year represented just 0.85 percent of the total General Fund, the Department of Conservation already has been hit hard by a flat-funding requirement in the previous biennial budget. The current budget resulted in the loss of 10 percent of the department's work force over the past two years. And if the proposed budget for fiscal years 2006-2007 is enacted, lost staff will total a 30 percent reduction since 1990, according to Tilberg.
So Tilberg and Commissioner Pat McGowan, who was not present at Monday's hearing because of a family funeral, looked for creative cuts and new sources of revenue. The Department of Conservation includes the Maine Forest Service and Land Use Regulation Committee in addition to the Bureau of Parks and Lands. All of these departments would face reductions in overtime and holiday pay for its employees and reduced employee travel, as well as a two-year freeze on capital improvement spending.
The department oversees 47 state parks and historic sites in addition to managing the state's forestland.
The Maine Forest Service proposed a new $5 fee for fire permits, which are now free, with the potential to raise $800,000 annually.
The Land Use Regulation Commission also looked for new revenues to avoid cutting an already bare-bones staff. About $60,000 could be raised over two years by increasing the cost of building permits issued after the fact, and updating fines that have remained steady since the early 1990s, according to LURC Director Catherine Carroll.
Funds also could be available by enforcing an existing rule that allows the commission to charge an increased application fee equal to 1.25 percent of a development's anticipated cost in the case of particularly large and labor-intensive projects. With Plum Creek's huge land use plan and several other major projects expected over the next few years, the application fees could raise an additional $60,000 over the course of the budget, Carroll said Monday.
State parks would attempt to save nearly $85,000 over the two years by eliminating lifeguards on freshwater beaches. And an additional $55,000 could be raised by selling water and electricity to campers at some state parks -- services which are now unavailable, Tilberg said.
But the proposal to sell lumber harvested from state parklands to raise revenue was by far the most controversial idea discussed Monday morning.
Timber harvesting is permitted in state parks only if required by deed (the case for only one property within the state park system) or if it is a forestry demonstration project that serves educational purposes.
The department has not yet selected which properties would be harvested, Soucy said, adding that any harvests would be sustainably managed -- and likely certified so by an outside auditor, as the state has done on other lands that are now in forest management.
The argument held little weight with conservation groups however, as the Natural Resources Council of Maine, The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Maine Audubon and the Appalachian Mountain Club lined up to oppose the idea Monday.
Maine already has several good demonstration forests, while unharvested forestland in the state represents at best 2 percent of the landscape, said Cathy Johnson of NRCM.
"The idea of cutting trees in our state parks strikes me not as resourcefulness, but something more like desperation," said Bruce Kidman of The Nature Conservancy. "I can't imagine that the people of Maine believe their state parks should be turned into wood lots, no matter what fancy term like 'demonstration forest' is placed upon the practice," he said.
Some conservationists suggested a range of alternative funding sources such as new taxes on outdoor recreation-related products and services, or even taxes on tourism revenues such as car rentals and restaurant meals.
All cited the importance of the department and urged the committee to find the $4.4 million.
"The department has done an incredible job with the limited resources it has been given," Johnson said, displaying a graph showing the decreasing employment trend at the Department of Conservation since 1992.
"This trend must be reversed," she said.
Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News