Landowner Relations Program Gets Kicked Back Downstairs

The Fish and Wildlife Department’s landowner relations program is woefully inadequate – indeed, it is barely a program at all, and the rest of us, including the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, have failed to step up with our own programs and initiatives.

This statement was part of my remarks to SAM’s 2003 Sportsman’s Congress. At that time, I was SAM’s executive director. Later that year the legislature responded to this problem by creating the Landowner and Sportsmen Relations Advisory Board. It took two years for Governor John Baldacci to appoint the Board’s members, and the Board has never been effective. I’ll bet you don’t even know this Board is still in existence.

Despite the rhetoric about the importance of maintaining Maine’s traditional recreational access to private lands, and the many ideas, task forces, committees, boards, legislative bills, projects, and programs we’ve launched, today we’re right back where we started.

Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is about to move its landowner relations position and program from the Commissioner’s office back downstairs to the Maine Warden Service. This is a serious mistake. Landowner relations is more than a law enforcement issue.

DIF&W’s relatively new landowner relations position, created in 2011 by the legislature, was purposely placed in the Commissioner’s office to emphasize its importance and assure that the program was comprehensive and not focused entirely on enforcement. Moving it to the Warden Service would be a serious downgrade, putting the job out of sight and out of mind for the Commissioner, and returning it to the days when landowner relations was simply a law enforcement function.

Here’s what Mark Latti said, just before he gave up DIF&W’s landowner relations position to become communications director for that agency’s fisheries and wildlife divisions. DIF&W’s “Landowner Relations Program works to create a more conscientious recreational user; as well as work with landowners and land users to address issues associated with access before they become larger problems.”

As Latti noted, “Access is the key to Maine’s outdoor heritage and traditions, as well as our outdoor recreational economy. The Department sells over half a million licenses and registrations each year, and the bulk of these activities occur on private land. Over 90 percent of the state is privately owned, and continued loss of access will threaten both our natural resource-based economy and our outdoor sporting heritage.”

The landowner relations position has been vacant since Latti left it last May, a frustration for those of us who have advocated for a comprehensive high-level program. Certainly, the position ought to have been filled before the fall hunting season began.

The sad saga of landowner relations programs at state agencies is long and frustrating, despite the constant good work and effort of SAM, SWOAM, the Maine Snowmobile Association, and other groups. SWOAM has been particularly active on the issue, even funding comprehensive surveys of landowners and users by the University of Maine, and creating recommendations based on the findings.

I remember in the early 2000s when SAM got a grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund and hired Roberta Scruggs to prepare “A Practical Guide to Preserving Public Access to Private Land.” It was loaded with good ideas and recommendations. None were adopted.

We tried again in 2003, through an ATV Task Force appointed by Governor John Baldacci and chaired by DIF&W’s Deputy Commissioner Paul Jacques. The Task Force hired Scruggs who created an exceptional report and plan and organized a conference to move the recommendations forward. Most of the 47 recommendations were ignored.

In 2012, SAM, the Maine Snowmobile Association, and the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, successfully worked to move the landowner relations position and program from DOC to DIF&W, and to create an entirely new concept for the program. Here is some what the program is supposed to do:

1)      Encourage landowners to allow outdoor recreationists access to their property to hunt, fish or engage in other outdoor recreational pursuits;

2)      Foster good relationships between landowners and outdoor recreationists; and

3)      Promote high standards of courtesy, respect, and responsibility by outdoor recreationists in their relations with landowners.

Among the many requirements, this program is supposed to conduct an aggressive outreach program to both landowners and land users “to provide educational material and signs and disseminates information to landowners and land users about landowner rights, liability protections, the tradition of allowing outdoor recreationists to use private land, and law enforcement resources available to landowners.”

The agency is supposed to “engage organizations and companies representing landowners, conservation groups, recreationists, land trusts and other organizations involved in outdoor recreation in developing, implementing and publicizing the program.”

Failure

This is much more than a law enforcement program. And the last time a landowner relations program was housed in the Maine Warden Service, it failed.

In 2004, an outside professional assessment of DIF&W offered insights into this failure, criticizing the department for “putting a… warden in this (landowner relations) position so he can be a sergeant, instead of filling the position with the right person, warden or not, (which) can lead to program ineffectiveness.”

The assessment was performed by the Management Assistance Team of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and reported that, “the landowner relations position would work well as a direct arm of the Commissioner, more high profile, using a broad range of skills and experience as well as sound comprehension of laws and regulations and law enforcement tools.”

In 2007, those recommendations were the basis of two legislative bills. One was proposed by SAM to create a landowner relations position in the department’s Information and Education Division. The other was proposed by the Small Woodland Association of Maine to establish landowner relations as part of the mission of the Maine Warden Service. DIF&W opposed both bills and they failed. But we didn’t give up. We were able to create a landowner relations program and temporary position in the Department of Conservation. That program and position expired in 2011.

In that year, SWOAM got a Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund grant to contract with Harry Vanderweide and me to design a landowner relations program and system. SWOAM’s Tom Doak and DIF&W’s Mark Latti worked in partnership with us on the project which resulted in a legislative bill that repealed all of the landowner relations program language in MRS Title 12, including the failed Supersport program, and replaced it with broad authority for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to create new landowner relations programs.

One of the things we did was abolish the failed Supersport program. So we were particularly astonished when the agency announced its new Outdoor Partners Program – which is nothing more than the old Supersport program offered at a $5 discount. Outdoor Partners pay $15 to participate in DIF&W’s landowner relations program. Supersports paid $20. Not surprisingly, a paltry 343 sportsmen have joined the Outdoor Partners program this year.

Conclusion

Frustrated by the lack of action, last year Tom Doak and I created the “Elements of a Comprehensive Landowner Relations Plan,” and presented it to DIF&W. None of those elements have been adopted. And now, we’re back where we started. Very sad.

As Doak told me recently, “I am most surprised that land users are not demanding a (landowner relations) program. They have the most to lose. Landowners should not have to carry this ball.”

I’m sure you agree. While it is disappointing to see the state ignoring its responsibilities, this emphasizes the need for every one of us who recreates on private land to step up to the challenge of creating good and lasting relationships with the landowners.

As Doak also told me, “When we asked landowners what they wanted most of all, they said respect.” Land users, are you listening?

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.