Maine Land and Water Access
The demise of deer in the north country has hit the outdoor industry hard, and some have renewed the call for Sunday hunting as one solution to bring more nonresident hunters to Maine. It is the most unlikely solution because private landowners fiercely oppose Sunday hunting.
And in Maine, most of our favorite outdoor activities depend on access to private land. Although we live in “vacationland,” and encourage tourists to enjoy the fields, forests, lakes, rivers and coast of Maine, we choose to largely ignore the fact that many of the activities we advertise require access to private land.
We simply don’t have enough public land – or public water access – to sustain the demand for outdoor recreational opportunities from either residents or tourists.
Maine is gradually transitioning from the time when public access to all the land in the state was assumed, to a time when no access will be allowed without permission. ATV riders are on the front lines in this transition. A few years ago the legislature enacted a law that requires ATV riders to have landowner permission anyplace they ride, without exception.
Snowmobilers have also been in the forefront of this transition. They have secured landowner permission for their entire network of trails throughout the state. They have also been hit the hardest when a landowner chooses to close a trail.
Landowners close their land to the public for many reasons. The primary reason, according to a survey taken years ago by the Sportsmen’s/Forest Landowners Alliance, is the illegal dumping of waste. Charging people to bring their waste to the dump encourages some scofflaws to drop their waste off on someone else’s back forty. And the next thing you know, No Trespassing signs are going up.
Another reason has been obvious to me for some time, right here in Mount Vernon. A lot of sportsmen-landowners post their land in order to enjoy exclusive hunting opportunities for themselves, family members and friends.
As an avid angler, I have been alarmed for some time about our lack of access to flowing water – the rivers, streams and brooks that I favor for fishing. Mainers possess a right of walking access to Great Ponds (waters over 10 acres), but absolutely no right of access to any moving water.
And just as we have been shut out of the coast – where no private landowner tolerates or provides access to the water to the public – we’ve been losing access to inland waters for decades. Someday it will be just as difficult to access inland waters as it is today to access the coast.
It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee – especially if you want to brew that coffee outdoors on someone else’s land. Access to private land is jeopardized all over the state.
Maine ought to establish a goal to permanently secure public access to:
1) private land for outdoor recreation including hunting, fishing, and hiking.
2) a network of trails for the use of motorized recreational vehicles including snowmobiles and ATVs and nonmotorized uses including hiking and biking.
3) every Maine lake, pond, river, stream and brook - adequate to sustain the uses of those waters including motorized boating, canoeing, kayaking, fishing and swimming.
Most of this access must be purchased and we’ll need a state strategy for this. Needs must be prioritized – because we can’t do everything at once. And the strategy- including the prioritized list of needs - must be developed by large and small landowners, outdoor recreation groups and state agencies, and endorsed by the Governor and legislature and all interest groups. It must be a unifying document as well as our map to the future. And the strategy must assign tasks to state agencies, recreation groups, and landowner organizations. State government can’t do this alone, nor should it be expected to do so.
State responsibility for public access to land and water should be assigned to a single agency. Right now the Departments of Transportation, Conservation, Marine Resources, and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and the State Planning Office all have access programs and responsibilities.
In the private sector, many organizations have access programs, from the Maine Forest Products Council to the Maine Bowhunters Association. We’ve got land trusts from the state to the local level. These groups must come together in a common organization to address access issues and work together on solutions. It will be critical that landowner groups participate in this organization.
We also have a diversity of funding sources available for purchasing land and water access including the federal Forest Legacy Program, the state’s Land for Maine’s Future Program and Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, and state agency boating access funds (a mix of state and federal money).
Groups like The Nature Conservancy and Maine Coast Heritage Trust fund the purchase of a lot of conservation land. Other nonprofits like the Forest Society of Maine and the New England Forestry Foundation focus their considerable fundraising capabilities on major land conservation projects in Maine. These funding sources must work more closely together – perhaps using the state strategy and priorities as a guide.
Too much of our money has chased land that happened to be available, rather than land that is essential to the future of our outdoor heritage.
Of course, we can’t buy it all – nor should we. But we can buy recreational opportunities on private land. In fact, that’s just what we’ve been doing with those large conservation easements that leave the land in private hands, but purchase access and development rights for the public.
Beyond that, we must create other rewards for private landowners who allow public access to and over their land. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is on the front lines in this effort – providing special hunting permits and opportunities to private landowners for a range of game animals from turkeys to deer. We also know that community-based solutions to some landowner problems – like illegal dumping of waste – will be important.
In case you don’t think this is important – consider this. Over $1 billion of annual economic impact is delivered simply by the activities we enjoy that involve the wild critters of this state. If we can’t get to these critters, or the critters are no longer there because we’ve ruined their habitat, that economy is in serious jeopardy.
Just ask deer hunters.