Maine Gov. Paul LePage asking lawmakers to merge state's Agriculture and Conservation departments, says merger would strengthen Maine's natural resources economy

AUGUSTA, Maine , September 30, 2011 () – Gov. Paul LePage announced Thursday he's going to ask lawmakers to merge Maine's Agriculture and Conservation departments.

A single department overseeing Maine's forest and farming industries would strengthen the state's natural resources economy, LePage said. The two departments are similar and divide funding resources from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said.

Legislation is now being drafted on the plan, which would require legislative approval.

"Farming and forestry can be a significant part of our economic engine, and both these industries are important to Maine's future," LePage said in a statement.

Former Gov. John Baldacci, who preceded LePage, proposed merging four natural resources-based agencies — Conservation, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Agriculture and Marine Resources — into a single superagency to save money. But the plan met legislative opposition and was never approved.

Supporters of Baldacci's plan said the state's bureaucracy had to adapt. But opponents said managing the agencies' diverse functions under one roof would be too cumbersome.

Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb and Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley both said Thursday that they support the governor's proposal.

Combining the agencies would improve services to farmers and timber producers and help expand those industries, Whitcomb said in a statement.

But the Natural Resources Council of Maine isn't convinced it's a good idea.

"The Department of Agriculture's job is promoting agriculture. That's very different from the Department of Conservation's responsibilities, which include overseeing the conservation and stewardship of Maine's state parks and public lands, natural areas, and forestlands," said Cathy Johnson, NRCM project director.

The Department of Agriculture is the state's lead agency dealing with all aspects of the food system from farm field to table. The Department of Conservation oversees 17 million acres of forest lands, 10.4 million acres of unorganized territory and 48 state parks and historic sites.

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