In 2002, responding to a flood of complaints from private landowners about ATV riders, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine conducted a nationwide study of landowner relations issues and solutions, and issued a report and recommendations in 2003. Despite the advocacy of many groups and individuals, those recommendations were never implemented.
The Executive Summary of the report concluded with these paragraphs:
The principles behind successful landowner relations programs are the same everywhere. They increase the benefits and decrease the costs for landowners who keep their property open to public use. They reward responsible land users and make irresponsible ones pay for their mistakes. They involve the community in the solutions.
Most important of all, landowner relations programs can help people understand that these conflicts threaten more than a handful of landowners or a few recreational sports. Without public access to private land, Maine would be a cramped, cold and unneighborly place to live.
The final paragraph included this statement of mine, as SAM’s executive director: “There’s no issue more critical to all of us who love the Maine outdoors and enjoy spending our time there.”
Sadly, 11 years after this report was issued in 2003, nothing has changed. Nor do we have an effective landowner relations program that can sustain our privilege of access to private land.
SAM was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund to conduct the study and create the recommendations, and supplemented that with $5,000 from SAM’s Conservation Education Fund. SAM’s office Manager, Kelly Allen, sent letters to 47 state fish and game agencies, asking about landowner relations programs. Nineteen states responded. Ed Courtenay, SAM’s representative on the Governor’s Council on Landowner Relations, reviewed the material and summarized each state’s program.
In October of 2002, SAM hired writer and researcher Roberta Scruggs for the next stage of the project. She contacted six more states: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Colorado, North Dakota, and Connecticut, and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec.
After reviewing all of the information, Scruggs identified projects with relevance to Maine’s landowner relations issues and researched them in depth. She also researched Maine’s current and former landowner relations programs. In the course of that research, programs in several other states were studied, including Iowa, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.
In addition, Scruggs interviewed about three dozen people, many more than once, about their experiences and recommendations for resolving landowner relations problems. She also collected many surveys, reports, and background material on issues related to landowner relations.
Roberta’s final report and recommendations are remarkable, thorough, and still valid. Here is the conclusion she presented in the report.
Maine needs a strong, active, adequately funded landowner relations program. It’s not enough to simply hand landowners signs with which to post their property. Nor is it realistic to expect one part-time coordinator to resolve a statewide problems. No agency or group, including IFW, DOC, the Sportsmen’s Forest Landowners Council and the Governor’s Council on Landowner Relations, can make much headway until and unless preserving public access to private land becomes a statewide priority.
If Maine is to resolve the growing conflicts between landowners and land users, it must invest in an infrastructure that provides what stakeholders need. That system should be based on very basic principles:
- Make someone responsible for leading the effort.
- Combine and coordinate resources, ideas and personnel.
- Raise public awareness about the problems and the solutions.
- Increase public funding and expand it with private donations.
- Give communities their own money to solve their own problems.
- Provide mediation between landowners and land users.
- Increase the benefits and decrease the costs for landowners who allow recreational use of their property.
- Reward responsible land users by expanding recreational areas, from boat launches to trails.
- Support and expand law enforcement so that irresponsible users pay for their mistakes.
There’s no denying it’s a big job, but Maine must help landowners gain control of their property without closing their land.
“Our future as sportsmen depends on access to private land,” said George Smith of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “And we are falling far short of doing what is necessary to assure that access in the future.”
I’m asking you about the importance one of the nine basic principles listed above in the study’s conclusion. You can do that in the Sportsmen Say Surveys section of my website, www.georgesmithmaine.com. Click here for the question.
The next column in this series on landowner relations examines the many advisory groups and boards that were created to address these issues, but resulted in just one failure after another.