Will the legislature kick landowner relations down the road?

stone wallWe have spent 10 frustrating years trying to create an effective and comprehensive landowner relations program at a state agency. This is so important to our present and our future, for all of us who recreate on private land. And that is all of us, isn’t it?

The Bill

LD 1321, An Act to Expand the Landowner Relations Program at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, was sponsored at my request by Representative Ellie Espling. The public hearing on the bill by the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee is scheduled for Thursday, April 30, at 1 pm, in Room 206 of the Cross Office Building (next to the Capitol).

I proposed this bill after getting lots of help and input from Tom Doak, who also hosted a meeting at the SWOAM office so he and I could discuss the bill with Rick LaFlamme, the game warden now in charge of landowner relations at Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Representative Espling also had a lot of suggestions that are included in the bill.

The bill includes a new Keep Maine Clean program, an extensive outreach program to recreationists who use private lands to encourage good landowner relations, and a new commission to oversee and direct the landowner relations program.

The Keep Maine Clean program will recruit volunteers to pick up trash along the roads and in the fields and forests while they are walking, hiking, hunting, fishing, and otherwise enjoying public and private lands, and encourage participation in a number of ways including monthly contests for the most unique item picked up that month.

The agency will also build a website presence for the project and email monthly newsletters to volunteers including stories about the program’s sponsors, volunteers, contests, good landowner relations, and other helpful information, and invite sponsorship of this program from businesses, groups representing outdoor recreationists, and others.

Rep. Espling’s bill will also establish an ongoing relationship with the agency’s licensed hunters, anglers, and trappers, using the agency’s email list and other methods, and with all nonprofits that represent outdoor recreationists, for an aggressive landowner relations program, including ongoing education about good landowner relations.

A commission will be created of representatives from groups that represent landowners (including land trusts) and outdoor recreation groups, along with state agency staff who manage public lands, to direct the program. After a lot of discussion, we chose to reconstitute the existing Landowners and Sportsmen Relations Advisory Board to achieve this goal.

DIF&W will create a monthly newsletter for all participants in the landowner relations program, and a special website presence for the program, and add a significant module about landowner relations to the hunter safety course.

Tom Doak and I have been talking about the Keep Maine Clean program for more than a year, and I am especially excited about it. Tom also suggested Rep. Espling as the bill’s sponsor, given her interest in and support for private landowners. Thank you Tom and Ellie!


We started this long journey at DIF&W many years ago, with the creation of a landowner relations position in the Warden Service. The position was totally focused on law enforcement, which is only one – and I would argue not even the most important  – part of this program.

Eventually we got the legislature to move the landowner relations program and staff position to the Bureau of Parks and Lands, where it remained for several years. In 2013 the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine received a grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund to “design a program and system that would build and maintain an educated motivated group of recreationists who work with landowners to resolve problems, improve wildlife habitat, and maintain on-going relationships,” among other tasks.

SWOAM contracted with Harry Vanderweide and me to implement the project and SWOAM’s executive director Tom Doak worked with us throughout the process. One result of the project was a legislative bill that repealed the landowner relations program language in Title 12, including the Supersport program, replacing it with broad authority for the agency to create new landowner relations programs, including creating the new group of recreationists mentioned above.

A real breakthrough occurred when DIF&W joined the effort and agreed to not only assume responsibility for this vastly expanded landowner relations program, but to completely restructure and rejuvenate its landowner relations program.

Current language

Here’s the language that currently governs DIF&W’s landowner relations program. Most of it was developed as part of the SWOAM project.

The commissioner shall develop and implement a landowner relations program… The program must: 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; 3) promote high standards of courtesy, respect, and responsibility by outdoor recreationists in their relations with landowners.

                The commissioner shall appoint a landowner relations coordinator to oversee the program and any other landowner relations activities of the department.

                To the extent resources allow, the program must include the following elements: 1) building and maintaining an educated and motivated group of outdoor recreationists who meet and promote high standards of courtesy, respect, and responsibility in their relations with landowners and who are willing to volunteer in program-related projects or efforts to improve landowner relations; 2) issuance of a certificate to persons supporting the program; 3) developing and disseminating to outdoor recreationists a code of ethics and other information promoting high standards of courtesy, respect, and responsibilities; 4) developing and disseminating to landowners information about landowner rights and liability protections, the tradition and advantages of allowing outdoor recreationists to use private land, and law enforcement resources available to landowners if they encounter problems with outdoor recreationists; 5) engaging organizations representing outdoor recreationists in all aspects of developing and implementing the program; 6) organizing and otherwise promoting landowner appreciation events to promote and recognize landowners who allow outdoor recreationists access to their property to hunt, fish or engage in other outdoor recreational pursuits; and 7) seeking and developing sources of funding to support the program.

A special landowner relations fund was established to support the new program and initiatives, most of which never got off the ground.  You are all sportsmen or use private land in some way. Have you ever heard of the program, received information from it, or been asked to participate in it?

As part of that project, we also organized a conference attended by 75 leaders from the recreation and landowner communities and state agencies on December 9, 2010. SWOAM and SAM hosted the event with help from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund and the Environmental Funders Network. My sister Edie Smith organized and moderated the event held at SAM’s Augusta conference center. Two pages of recommendations were created at the conference.

But here’s the really distressing thing. Despite all the studies, reports, plans, conferences, and even the good work of the legislature’s IFW Committee, almost none of this has been accomplished. The legislature placed the new landowner relations position in the Commissioner’s office, to emphasize its importance and help the agency focus on the program. Mark Latti initially took that position, but when he left for another job in the agency, the position remained vacant – for more than a year. And then it was moved back downstairs, to the Warden Service. Right where we started over a decade ago. Equally troubling, no more than a few hundred sportsmen participate in the program.

Now, I originally created a much more comprehensive landowner relations bill, but I scaled it back for two reasons. DIF&W has quite a lot of authority now to create this program. And Rick LaFlamme has done a good job, as one person with a limited budget, to create a more effective program. But Rick can’t come close to achieving all the tasks assigned by law to this program. The recommendations in our bill will move the agency much closer to that goal.

ATV Study

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, 12 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.

The Study

                 SAM was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund to conduct this 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.”

Powerful Landowner/Sportsmen Advisory Board fails on all fronts

In 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 program. 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 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 proposed 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:

  • Propose changes to or advise the commissioner on landowner-related laws, rules, department policies and other significant landowner and land user issues;
  • Review landowner-related policies and procedures, conduct studies, evaluate programs and make recommendations to the commissioner;
  • 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;
  • Review and make recommendations regarding programs administered by other agencies. The Commissioner shall coordinate all reviews;
  • 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 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 the 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.

Landowner Relations – Understandings

In 2007, I created a paper titled, “A Solution to Conflicts and Competition for Recreational Access and Use of Private and Public Lands.”  It got a bit of press, but little attention otherwise. In the opening paragraph, I reported, “We must understand what motivates each of us and drives the conflicts we’re suffering over our outdoor recreational pursuits, if we are going to figure out how to resolve those conflicts.” I still think this is critically important. And we are a long way from achieving it.

The 2007 paper was basically a list of “understandings” and “solutions.” If we could all share the common “understandings”, then the “solutions” might resolve a whole lot of problems and allow us to protect and enhance our outdoor heritage for future generations, while reducing the constant challenges and conflicts that threaten that heritage. Here are the “understandings” and “solutions,” with a slight bit of updating.


                 Hunters must understand that nonhunters fear for their safety during hunting seasons – and must have places, times, and days when they can go afield without encountering hunters (Sundays, for example).

Nonhunters must understand that hunters have experienced a lot of posted land and fear that this trend will continue, crowding them into smaller areas.

Hunters believe they can’t afford to lose any more hunting ground. As access to private land is diminished, sportsmen have come to depend on public land and this is likely to continue.

Both game and nongame animals belong to the people and are appreciated and valued by all of us. When it comes to wild critters, there is a lot more that unites us than divides us. But hunting and trapping are the principle methods of controlling populations of game animals and limiting the impact of problems like Lyme disease and crop damage.

Access to private land is a privilege in Maine, not a right, and landowners have many problems that are caused by recreationists and others, from illegal waste dumping to environmental damage from recreational vehicles. According to the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, the top request of private landowners is respect for their property.

Although walk-in access to great ponds is guaranteed, Mainers have no right of access to moving water (brooks, streams, and rivers). And a large number of great ponds have no public access site or site for launching watercraft.

Most recreationists need motorized access in order to enjoy the lands and waters of our state. The majority are unable to recreate in areas they cannot reach by motor vehicle.

Most recreationists appreciate areas where motorized access is not allowed, including many hunters who enjoy walk-in hunting and anglers who enjoy remote ponds.

ATV and snowmobile riders need connected trails all over the state and some side trails to special places.

Most recreationists enjoy “quiet” waters without motors or with limited horsepower motors.


                 All recreationists should understand where our disagreements are real and establish methods to mitigate and resolve those disagreements.

Hunters and anglers should support the creation of nonmotorized areas on both public and private lands.

Strong and comprehensive landowner relations programs should be established at state agencies and all groups that represent outdoor recreationists.

Nonhunters, and the organizations to which they belong, should participate in and support landowner relation programs.

All groups should work to secure legal access to all Maine waters, including moving waters – with a mix of boat and hand-carry launches that match the size and uses of the water.

All groups should be active in habitat protection and enhancement programs and issues, for all species.

Nonhunters should consider the concept of hiking seasons and hunting seasons, to allow everyone some opportunity to use public lands, instead of pursuing bans on hunting that prevent hunters from ever enjoying particular sections of public land while hikers enjoy year-round access and use.

Citizen initiatives on wildlife management issues should be prohibited and we should all focus on good scientific management of all species.

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. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.