The Maine legislature has unanimously agreed that Governor Paul LePage is wrong about a proposal to expand the state’s landowner relations program. Unanimous votes in the House and Senate over-rode LePage’s veto of LD 1321, a bill that expands the landowner relations program at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
The Governor seems to have little regard for the importance of good relations between landowners and land users. His veto message noted that, “The department does not need another legislatively mandated program designed to appease some special interest group to take time and attention away from the department’s core mission.” He could not be more wrong.
Private landowners are certainly not “some special interest group.” Nor are the sportsmen of Maine and others who recreate on private land. Most of us believe landowner relations are a vitally important part of DIF&W’s core mission.
Rep. Ellie Espling sponsored this 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.
Although DIF&W originally opposed the bill, the IF&W Committee amended the bill to satisfy the agency’s concerns. In response to a question from an IFW Committee member, Warden Rick LaFlamme, the agency’s landowner relations coordinator, said, “As amended, I think it will help me go where we want to go.” I really appreciated that comment!
More from the Governor
Governor LePage was apparently offended that the bill changed the way members are appointed to the Landowner Sportsman Relations Advisory Board. “The primary thrust of this program is to rearrange the Landowners and Sportsmen’s Relations Advisory Board. This is one of a half dozen Boards that the department is expected to staff in order for various stakeholders to provide their input to the Department. I question the need for a statutorily constituted advisory board, when the Department is accessible and open to receiving public input.”
He also complained that the bill takes away his authority to appoint members to this Board. “While this is not necessarily legislation to sell the Blaine House, it is just another example of the Legislature diminishing the role of the Chief Executive; that is an action by which I will not abide,” he concluded.
Sarah Medina’s testimony was particularly insightful on these issues. Medina is the chair of the SLRA Board and testified that allowing the DIF&W Commissioner to appoint Board members, rather than the governor, “is wise. These positions do not necessitate gubernatorial appointment,” she said. “Appointment by the commissioner had been recommended by the Board itself and should result in a more efficient and a more timely process.” Which is exactly why we put that change in the bill.
Rep. Espling and Tom Doak
Rep. Espling, the House Assistant Republican Leader, did a superb job of shepherding the bill through the process, and over-riding the Governor’s veto. SWOAM’s executive director Tom Doak was also very helpful throughout the process and worked to round up over-ride votes.
I am an active member of SWOAM and have appreciated the help Tom has provided over the years on landowner relations issues and legislation. He and I have been discussing the Keep Maine Clean program for two years and believe it will be very well received by private landowners. Tom organized a meeting for us with Rick LaFlamme before I finalized the legislative proposal, and convinced me to focus the bill on only the most important issues and elements, which I did.
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. I plan to volunteer to help DIF&W launch this program.
- 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. Tom Doak suggested this part of the bill.
On April 23, I posted a comprehensive column on landowner relations, including various initiatives and studies that have been conducted over the last 10 years. You can read that column here.