Powerful Landowner/Sportsmen Advisory Board fails on all fronts

trespassing sign twoIn the search engine on the website of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, I entered the words “landowner relations” to find information on the agency’s landowner relations advisory board. I was directed to a “site map” with a long list of programs, reports, and other information.

In the middle of the long list I saw “landowner relations” and clicked on it. This is what came up: We’re sorry but the page you requested cannot be found.

Sorry indeed. And indicative of how little attention is given to landowner relations in the agency that has been charged with maintaining a comprehensive landowner relations program. The program “cannot be found.”

Long Sad History

The Landowners and Sportsmen Relations Advisory Board was created in 2003 by the Maine legislature, but it took Governor John Baldacci two full years to appoint its members – perhaps an indication that the LePage Administration was not the first to consider this a low priority.

Ironically, appointees to that board, including yours truly, received confirmation letters from Governor Baldacci dates May 23, 2005, exactly two years from the day the governor signed into law the bill that created this board.

This board struggled for years to gain any momentum on the key issues of public access to private land. Eventually I left the Board, disappointed and discouraged. A predecessor group to the new Advisory Board was also ineffective.

The board’s outspoken chair, Dave Peppard, expressed his frustration in a June 7, 2007 memo to board members, reporting, “Since 2002, the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Landowner Relations Program has deteriorated to the point of being basically non-existent.”

Peppard was well qualified to make this statement. The retired game warden once headed the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s landowner relations program. After he retired, the department downgraded the program to just 10 percent of one warden’s time.

As Maine’s tradition of public access to and across private land continues to evaporate, the importance of maintaining a good relationship between landowners and recreationists is paramount. So far, neither state agencies nor most of the groups representing outdoor recreationists have been able to foster the relationships and that programs would sustain this important heritage and tradition.

The exception is the Maine Snowmobile Association and local snowmobile clubs that conduct very successful landowner relations projects and programs. I will tell you about the MSA program in a later column.

In the same year that Peppard made his complaint, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, where I served as Executive Director, tried to create a landowner relations position in DIF&W’s Information and Education Division. The agency opposed and defeated that bill.

In that same legislative session, the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine propose a bill to establish landowner relations as part of the mission of the Maine Warden Service. DIF&W and the Warden Service opposed that bill, stating very plain that this was not their responsibility, and the bill was defeated.

Strong Law

The Landowners and Sportsmen Relations Advisory Board was given powerful authority and very significant duties in the statute. But the Board hasn’t come close to using that authority or achieving these duties:

1)      Propose changes to or advise the commissioner on landowner-related laws, rules, department policies and other significant landowner and land user issues;

2)      Review landowner-related policies and procedures, conduct studies, evaluate programs and make recommendations to the commissioner;

3)      Obtain public use of private and public land for recreational activities by assisting with conflict resolution as it pertains to public access issues on both private and public lands and promote greater understanding and cooperation between owners and users of these lands;

4)      Review and make recommendations regarding programs administered by other agencies. The Commissioner shall coordinate all reviews;

5)      Conduct an organizational review of the advisory board every 5 years. This review must be designed to provide the information to ascertain whether the advisory board is fulfilling its duties. If the review indicates that the advisory board does not have the correct representational membership, a subcommittee of the members of the advisory board must be convened to recommend to the commissioner appropriate changes. At any time, the advisory board may recommend to the commissioner ways to improve the advisory board’s membership or function, and the commissioner shall act upon those recommendations.

Boy, would I like to help with that organizational review! And yes, of course, that review has not be done. Nor have the other duties been achieved.

The Advisory Board is very large, meets quarterly to hear presentations, after which its members return home, not be heard from again until the next meeting. One recent meeting focused on the question of whether there are mountain lions in Maine. Not exactly a critical issue for landowners or land users.

The group does sponsor an annual banquet where it recognizes a few landowners. But group’s members sit on the sidelines, absent at any important forum, including the legislature, unable apparently to play the important role envisioned by the Maine legislature when the Board was created.

Question

The Landowners and Sportsmen Relations Advisory Board has been in place for 11 years. Have you ever heard of it? Are you aware of anything it has done? Please access the Sportsmen Say Surveys section of my website to answer these questions.

Next Column

The next column in this series presents the sad saga suffered by a Maine landowner couple who, reluctantly, have decided to post their land.

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.