Tension was high on Monday afternoon in Room 206 of the Cross Office Building when hunters and trappers lined up against anti-hunters and anti-trappers and farmers. This was a very unusual situation because sportsmen and farmers have been partners on many issues in the past. Two bills drew a room packed with sportsmen.
LD 223, An Act to Require Written Permission for Recreational Access to Cropland, Pastureland and Orchards, provides that a person engaging in a recreational activity regulated under the inland fisheries and wildlife laws may not conduct that activity on privately owned cropland or pastureland or in a privately owned orchard without the written permission of the landowner or lessee. The bill was submitted on behalf of the Maine Farm Bureau.
LD 559, An Act to Protect Owners of Private Property against Trespass, requires that a hunter get written permission when baiting, and hunting coyotes and hunting bears, coyotes or bobcats with dogs. It also provides another way to conspicuously mark land where permission is required for access.
These bills signaled a troubling breakdown in the coalition called the Natural Resource Network, an alliance of organizations whose members depend on Maine’s natural resources for business and recreation. Network members have worked in the past to eliminate divisions on key bills, but their collaborative effort clearly broke down on this very critical access issue.
NRN members are the Maine Forest Products Council, Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Maine Potato Board, Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, Maine Aquaculture Association, Maine Dairy Industry Association, Maine Snowmobile Association, Maine Lobsterman’s Association, Wild Blueberry Commission, Maine Trappers Association, Maine Farm Bureau, Maine Professional Guides Association, Maine Bowhunters Association, and Independent Energy Producers Association.
Farm Bureau Executive Director Jon Olson testified in favor of both bills, explaining that farmers have to, by federal law, control people as well as animals that access their croplands. Olson asked that the law that requires ATV riders to obtain landowner permission be extended to all members of the public that use their land.
Despite the fact the bill does not address ATVs, lots of proponents mentioned problems they’ve encountered with ATV riders. Farmer Clark Granger testified ATV riders had damaged and stolen his Christmas trees.
A lady testified that ATVs are causing serious problems at her horse sanctuary. She said she’s called State Police, the Sheriff, and game wardens, and it took three years for them to finally catch a couple of kids. “Everyone has sympathized but no one has done anything. I’ve posted my property but they run right over my signs,” she said.
Skip Trask, lobbyist for the 800-member Maine Professional Guides Association and 1100-member Maine Trappers Association opposed both bills while about 50 of his members sat and stood behind him.
“This may be the most important bill you’ll deal with this session,” said Trask. “If enacted, it will forever impact the ability of every one of us to access privately owned land for outdoor recreation.”
This “is a reverse posting bill,” said Trask. “It would apply year-round to thousands of acres, from harvested hay fields to seldom used pastures, from unmaintained orchards in Western Maine to the blueberry barrens of Washington and Hancock Counties.
“What about the little trout brook running through the alders in the pasture behind the old Hutchinson farm in Carthage – the brook every kid in town fishes in the spring. That wouldn’t happen anymore, at least not legally, unless they were all carrying permission slips in their pockets. Is that really where we want to go?” asked Trask in testimony that was eloquent.
Trask acknowledged the problems created by irresponsible users, noting that most of that behavior violates existing law. “Creating new laws that adversely impact ethical and law abiding sportsmen and sportswomen is not the answer.”
Lots of guides, trappers, and sportsmen followed Trask to the podium to speak against the bill, including Jeff Belmore, MPGA President and also a farmer with 500 acres in Warren. He suggested that many landowners would not give written permission even though they currently allow access to their land, and suggested that more money for IFW’s game wardens would help.
Colonel Joel Wilkinson testified for IFW “neither for nor against” the bill. He explained current laws that require some users to obtain permission. He asked for more resources to “help address all issues,” and pointed out problems with the language and intent of the bill.
This hearing was a vivid demonstration of how things have changed – and continue to change – for Maine hunters and trappers. It was once common for hunters with hounds to pursue a number of game animals – especially coons and bobcats – all over southern and central Maine.
Today, that’s almost a guarantee that the dogs, if not the hunters, will enter posted land. And landowners who once welcomed sportsmen are far less frequent these days.
It was disappointing to find farmers and sportsmen at odds. I hope this doesn’t become a trend at the Maine legislature.
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