This is another in my ongoing series on landowner relations, the most important topic and challenge for Maine sportsmen and others who recreate on private land. Of particular importance in this column are the recommendations of Tom Doak for an effective landowner relations program.
A great suggestion about multi-species management is featured in one of the many interesting stories in the July 2014 issue of Maine Woodlands, the newsletter of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine.
“I hope the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife decides to develop and publish a multi-species wildlife plan for landowners,” says Merk. “In the past, all the plans have been unique to one species. We have a plan for rabbits, and a plan for turkeys; also one for deer, moose and bears, but we don’t have one for all those species involved in the same habitat, if that is even possible.
“I realize that there would probably be some political fallout to a multi-species habitat plan, because special interest groups might rather have a habitat plan focused on their preferred species. But since over 90% of the habitats in Maine are maintained by private land ownership, the landowners ought to be provided with a resource planning tool that allows for multiple species habitats. The specific habitat plans are already done,” he concluded.
A provocative column about landowner relations appears in the newsletter, written by SWOAM executive director Tom Doak. I have worked for years with Tom on this issue and I share his frustration. If you care about, and/or depend on access to private land for your favorite outdoor activities, you must read this column.
“Whether you allow the public to use your woodland or you restrict access,” writes Doak to his members, “you shouldn’t have to put up with abuse of your property. A program to help woodland owners with the problems they face from public use – and abuse – has been talked about for years. The outdoor economy of Maine is based largely on public access to private land; think hunting, snowmobiling, bird-watching, cross-country skiing, trapping, ATV riding, and stream fishing. And unlike almost every other state, where you do not use someone’s private woodland without permission and payment, in Maine landowners traditionally do not receive payment, and there’s a long history of landowners sharing their land with others.
“So given the importance of access to private land, you’d think it would be easy to get enthusiasm, support, funding, and action to support landowners. Well, you couldn’t be more wrong. Efforts to create effective, ongoing landowner relations have had several different iterations, all of which have ended in failure. Meanwhile, landowners report increasing misuse of their land, and land users report more and more posted land,” reported Doak.
His column includes an excellent presentation of the history of this issue, reporting, “Unfortunately the program has floundered under IF&W with few, if any, accomplishments.”
Doak offers a bunch of great recommendations for an effective state landowner relations program. Here they are.
• First and foremost, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife needs to show that it’s committed and capable of operating an effective landowner relations program. To date, it has let landowners and land users down.
• Make problems landowners face from public use (and abuse) a priority. IF&W has shown the ability to allocate staffing and funds to address issues it considers important, most recently the pending bear referendum. The landowner relations program has been largely ignored.
• Keep the current enforcement level, but the real focus should be on preventing problems from happening in the first place.
• Take advantage of common interests between landowners and land users. There are many organizations, groups and clubs representing land users willing to help, but they need coordination and structure.
• Combine hunter safety and landowner relations courses. Every person who applies for a new hunting license must complete a hunter safety course. Extend that requirement to landowner relations to be taught at the same time.
• Look at the extensive survey results of landowners and land users and develop the landowner relations program based on that information, not anecdotal information that has been shown to be just plain wrong. For example, when landowners were given 15 choices of actions which would “positively influence your decision to allow public access to your land,” increased law enforcement was rated dead last. Landowners wanted efforts that prevent problems, because once the damage is done; there is often little chance of finding the culprit and little satisfaction even if the culprit is found. Yet the program was recently moved from the commissioner’s office at IF&W back to the law enforcement unit of the department, the Warden Service. Further, the full survey results have been available since 2011 and provide a full framework for a program. This information is being ignored.
• Operate from a landowner viewpoint, not the land user.
• Learn from success stories. The Maine Snowmobile Association (MSA) runs the most successful landowner relations effort in Maine. Without any enforcement authority, they have somehow managed to keep a trail system of 14,000 miles open, 95% of which exists on private land. These private owners allow trails to be cut, signs put up, motorized vehicles to operate any hour of the day or night, and receive no benefit whatsoever. MSA must be doing something right.
• Maintain a consistent effort. The program has been moved around between departments, and among units within departments. It needs a permanent home, reliable funding, and a long-term effort. No more stops and starts.
• Make sure that funding and resources designated to support the landowner relations program are used only for that specific purpose.
• Whether landowners allow access or not, they deserve the same protections from abuse.
Maine Woodlands includes several other articles, including my review of outdoorsman Tom Seymour’s newly revised Wild Plants of Maine guide, published this year by Just Write Books. Thanks to Tom, I now know there is a lot of food out there in the great Maine outdoors!
You can access the entire SWOAM Newsletter here.