With a couple of significant changes, legislation to expand the landowner relations program at Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife won a nearly unanimous vote of support from the legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee on May 14.
Rep. Ellie Espling sponsored the bill at my request and worked closely with me throughout the process. Many major organizations testified in support of the bill including the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Maine Snowmobile Association, Small Woodland Owners of Maine, Maine Forest Products Council, Maine Conservation Voters, and Sarah Medina, Chair of DIF&W’s Landowner Sportsman Relations Advisory Board.
DIF&W was the only opponent. Major Chris Cloutier of the Maine Warden Service delivered the agency’s testimony, explaining what they are doing now to foster good landowner relations, and objecting to any new duties without additional funding. Cloutier also expressed concern that Espling’s bill would significantly reorganize the Landowner Sportsman Relations Advisory Board, and suggested that the committee should consult with the current chair of that committee. That would be Sarah Medina, who had already testified in favor of the bill!
Cloutier also objected to “placing the broad spectrum of any and all landowner-relations issues on the Department, especially those that do not fall under our mission, as problematic.” That reminded me of the year SWOAM 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 plainly that this was not their responsibility. That bill was defeated.
The Amended Bill
Here’s what the amended bill would do.
- Reconstitute the Landowner Sportsman Relations Advisory Board as a smaller board, with members appointed by DIF&W’s Commissioner, and with a regular meeting schedule. This Board has a lot of authority but has never functioned effectively. I was actually on it for a while, and it was a very frustrating experience. As Medina noted in her testimony, the current Board is too big and requires appointments by the governor, a long and tedious process.
- Establishes the Keep Maine Clean program to recruit volunteers to pick up trash in the fields and forests, and to encourage participation with a monthly emailed newsletter including stories about the program’s sponsors, volunteers, contests (like most unusual trash item of the month), good landowner relations, and other information. DIF&W asked the committee to remove the section of this bill that called for picking up trash along roads – stating that this is not their responsibility. And that was removed from the final version of the bill.
- Requires DIF&W to issue an annual report that includes a summary of the program’s major accomplishments over the previous year, a summary of how the agency’s landowner relations staff spent their time, a list of landowner-related complaints received and any resulting action on those complaints, an accounting of income and expenses of the Landowner Relations Fund, and an explanation of what the advisory board accomplished pursuant to its statutory duties.
What Got Removed
In addition to taking out the language that would include picking up trash along roads as part of the Keep Maine Clean program, one other section of the bill was removed at DIF&W’s request. That was a section that expanded the agency’s landowner relations program to virtually everyone who recreates on public land, including foragers and hikers. Warden Rick LaFlamme, DIF&W’s landowner relations coordinator, said the agency couldn’t expand the program to those people without a lot of additional funding.
After the bill was amended, DIF&W was much more positive about the bill. In response to a question from an IFW Committee member, LaFlamme said, “As amended, I think it will help me go where we want to go.” I really appreciated that comment!
The bill now proceeds to the House and Senate for action, and then on to the Governor for signing. Still a long way to go, but a promising start to something that really needs to be done. As Rep. Espling said in her testimony when she presented the bill, “If we do not have good landowner/land user relations, if we make decisions that disrupt the balance between what land users do and the rights of property owners, we will have less and less private land open for public use. I want to see more outdoor recreational opportunities because I think that is the Maine brand. That is why I think THE most important program within IFW is the landowner relations program.”
While we await action on this bill, I can give you some good news now. If you missed fiddle head season, there is a lot more food in the Maine woods! Pick up a copy of Tom Seymour’s newly revised Wild Plants of Maine guide, published last year by Just Write Books. We’ve got lots of edibles out there!
PHOTO: by Kerry Bickford, Kerrizma Designz