I can’t wait to pick tomatoes at Mount Blue State Park, and I’ll bet those fields of pumpkins in Camden Hills State Park will be a big hit with kids come Halloween.

Great idea — putting state parks and public lands in Maine’s Department of Agriculture! Maybe that’s just the spark that farming needs to regain its place in the state’s economy.

More than likely, it will be something the state’s agricultural industry regrets in the years to come.

Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to merge the Department of Agriculture with the Department of Conservation, including the Forest Service and Parks and Public Lands, is scheduled for a public hearing at 1 p.m. Tuesday in room 206 of the Cross Building in Augusta.

The new department will be dominated by forestry interests — a much-larger economic sector than agriculture — and will bring Parks and Public Lands interests, including groups representing environmentalists, sportsmen and outdoor recreationists, into position to participate in all of the department’s decisions about farming and farm programs. Farming will become a small forgotten bureau in this large department in the years to come.

Small mission-focused agencies work better than large departments bound up in bureaucracy and strangled by conflicts between competing interests. Maine needs lean self-funded natural resource agencies that anticipate change, recognize economic opportunities and constantly reposition themselves to serve the needs of Maine’s economy and people.

The farming community has been well served over the years by its state agency. So I am somewhat surprised that farm groups, led by the Maine Farm Bureau, have endorsed LePage’s proposal to merge the Departments of Conservation and Agriculture.

A few farm groups, along with many individual farmers, have expressed opposition, or at least concern, but the Farm Bureau’s support, along with a strong lobbying effort from the forest products industry, is likely to push the governor’s proposal through the legislative process.

When Gov. John Baldacci submitted his third proposal to merge natural resource agencies, the Natural Resources Network responded with a thoughtful consolidation proposal that moved forestry to the Agriculture Department but left Parks and Lands as a separate stand-alone agency. Farming and forestry are combined in a single department at the federal level, so this is not unprecedented.

The Natural Resources Network is an alliance of organizations whose members depend on Maine’s natural resources for business and recreation. NRN members are the Maine Forest Products Council, Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Maine Potato Board, Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, Maine Aquaculture Association, Maine Dairy Industry Association, Maine Snowmobile Association, Maine Lobsterman’s Association, Wild Blueberry Commission, Maine Trappers Association, Maine Farm Bureau, Maine Professional Guides Association and Independent Energy Producers Association.

At the time, I represented the Sportsman’s Alliance in the network. Network members successfully fought all three of Baldacci’s natural resource agency merger proposals. This time, while the network has not officially expressed an opinion, nearly all of its members support the governor’s proposal.

You might ask why LePage is even bothering with this merger proposal. He says he hopes, through the merger, to free up additional revenue for the combined agency, so that the whole can do more than the separate agencies.

I guarantee that will not happen. Consolidation doesn’t save money — in fact, initially, it costs money. It cost $100,000 to merge the small Atlantic Salmon Commission into the Department of Marine Resources.

It will be interesting to see if the Legislature comes up with an honest and accurate prediction of the cost of merging Agriculture and Conservation. The management of parks and public lands is completely different from the management of farms and forests — different mission, different constituencies, different programs. The growing importance of parks, public lands, and easement lands to the state’s outdoor recreation economy justify department status where acquisition priorities can be established and management performed efficiently.

And if for some reason we can’t abide a stand-alone agency for our parks and lands, there’s a better place to move it.

There are eight states with Fish, Wildlife and Parks Departments. I am very familiar with Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. It works very well — but as you might imagine, it is dominated by sportsmen’s interests.

That probably wouldn’t suit Maine environmentalists either. Or sportsmen, for that matter, who continue to advocate for a Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife that serves their own interests.

Sort of like what Maine’s farmers used to do for their Department of Agriculture.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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