Outdoor Issues Remain Unresolved in Augusta
All of the critical issues of concern to outdoor recreationists remain unresolved at the legislature, although some will be debated this week in the House and Senate.
The list of unresolved issues includes: ATV stops by game wardens; installation of culverts to allow fish passage; a saltwater anglers’ license; invasive plants; guns in Acadia National Park; the merger of natural resource agencies and the budgets of those agencies.
Believe it or not, the legislature is expected to complete work on all of these and a lot more within the next month, with final adjournment no later than mid-April. Here’s a brief explanation of each key outdoor issue.
Saltwater Fishing License
A proposed saltwater fishing license has emerged as one of the toughest fights this session, pitting sportsmen’s groups against environmental and commercial interests.
The federal government established a mandatory registry this year. Those who fish for anadromous (migratory) fish must register by phone or Internet. The registration is free this year, but the feds can start charging anglers next year.
The state has the option to create its own registry or license to fish in saltwater. The legislature failed last year to act on Senator David Trahan’s proposal to create a state online free registry, and has moved forward this session with a bill to create a Maine saltwater fishing license. It would take the place of the federal registry.
The biggest myth in the debate over a saltwater angler’s license for Maine is that if the state fails to act, anglers will be “sending their money to Washington.” The implication is that Maine could somehow benefit if this money was kept in-state. The feds can only charge for the cost of the registration – nothing for programs and enforcement.
Those who register with the feds are not “sending their money to Washington,” and are not paying for federal programs or enforcement. The state will also have to cover the administrative costs of its license, and license advocates also want to raise money for programs and enforcement.
Although at one time license advocates talked about creating new programs for recreational saltwater anglers, they now want to use the money to fill holes in the budget of the Department of Marine Resources. The fiscal note for LD 1432 includes money to fill a dozen vacant positions at DMR that serve commercial interests.
Also, the money is not protected and could give the administration and the legislature an opportunity to take public funding away from the agency. This has happened repeatedly to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Why would things be any different for DMR? The agency already gets $800,000 of federal Sport Fishing Restoration funds, paid in excise taxes by recreational anglers, and provides almost nothing to recreational anglers in return.
The feds are creating their registry in order to survey anglers about their catch. The surveys will remain the responsibility of the feds, even if Maine requires a saltwater fishing license.
Guns in Acadia National Park
LD 1737, Act to Clarify Safety Requirements in Acadia National Park, has gotten quite a lot of attention in the past few weeks. In response to the decision of the U.S. Congress to allow each state to determine if guns were to be allowed in the national parks and park systems in each respective state, some legislators moved to prohibit firearms in Acadia National Park and the Appalachian Trail in Maine.
The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and National Rifle association both testified against the original bill but are now supporting an amended version that won majority support of the members of the Criminal Justice Committee. The amended version allows guns on the AT, and with concealed firearms permits in Acadia.
A second amended version, supported by a minority of Criminal Justice Committee members, would allow guns on the AT, but prohibit them in Acadia even by those who hold concealed permits.
Last year, environmental and sportsmen’s groups worked to enact legislation, sponsored by House Speaker Hannah Pingree, that amended existing exemptions in the Natural Resources Protection Act to require that natural stream flow be maintained when culverts are repaired or replaced.
The Department of Environmental Protection created the rules, took them to public hearing, received some critical feedback, made adjustments, and then submitted the rules to this session of the legislature for approval.
John Boland, Fisheries Director for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, says, “This is perhaps the most critically important legislation in my career in terms of preserving and enhancing Maine’s native fisheries and restoring connectivity to our aquatic systems.”
That's a powerful endorsement from the guy who knows.
After a lengthy hog-wrastle, the legislature’s Natural Resources Committee endorsed the rules in a divided party-line vote (Democrats in favor, Republicans opposed) and sent them to the House and Senate for action.
Unfortunately, the committee made one significant change. In response to the strong opposition of the Maine Municipal Association, the committee proposed that implementation of the rules be delayed for two years.
MMA is concerned about the cost of installing culverts that maintain the in-stream flow necessary for fish and other organisms to get upstream.
If the rules are endorsed by the full legislature, we’ll get them in place but we won’t start doing this right until two years from now. If they are rejected, it’s back to the drawing board for the DEP.
Invasive Plants and Bass Tournament
Rep Jane. Eberle got everyone’s attention with her bill, LD 1548, An Act to Prevent the Spread of Invasives and Protect Maine’s Lakes. The bill would ban bass tournaments on water bodies with confirmed infestations of invasive aquatic plants.
Eberle convened an interesting mix, including lake associations, bass clubs, state agencies, and legislators, to discuss her concerns. The result is a remarkable new partnership in which these interests have agreed to continue working together on invasive plant and fish issues.
Eberle’s amended version is a resolve that includes this commitment, expands the educational work of DIF&W and the DEP on invasives, includes a collaborative effort led by the Congress of Lakes Association (COLA) to inventory private boat launches on lakes with invasive plants, and steps up the requirements for checking boats at bass tournaments while dropping the ban.
ATV Stops by Wardens
Rep. Ralph Sarty’s bill, LD 1536, would repeal a portion of a law enacted last year by the legislature. That new law, sponsored by Rep. John Martin, prohibited Maine game wardens from stopping ATV riders without “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that a violation of law has occurred.
This new law took effect last September. Some private landowners are irate about it, especially the Small Woodland Owners Association that is leading the campaign for Sarty’s bill.
Because ATV riders must have permission to ride on private land, those who own that land believe wardens ought to be able to stop anyone who is riding on their land to check for permission.
Rep. Sarty’s bill would restore a game warden’s authority to stop ATV riders on private land (but not public) without suspicion of a law violation. To win the support of ATV-Maine, it also requires a warden to have suspicion of a law violation before stopping an ATV on an official ATV trail on private land.
The IF&W Committee was very divided on the bill, and Rep. Martin is poised in the House to fight to defeat it, assisted by the Civil Liberties Union. The debate promises to be one of the most entertaining of the legislative session.
A coalition of landowner and recreational groups are supporting the bill, including the Farm Bureau, Maine Forest Products Council, Maine Snowmobile Association, Blueberry Growers, Maine Professional Guides Association, Maine Trappers Association, Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, ATV-Maine, and the Landowner Sportsmen Relations Advisory Group.
Natural Resource Agency Consolidation
Hidden deep in his recent supplemental budget proposal, Governor John Baldacci launched his third attempt to consolidate natural resource agencies. Although Part DDD of the budget doesn’t mention consolidation, it bears a striking resemblance to his two previous consolidation proposals, including an insistence that $1,250,000 can be saved.
. All of the state’s natural resource agencies play critical roles in Maine’s natural resource economy, have been recognized as especially important to rural economies, receive little or no support from General Fund taxes and consequently cannot offer any significant tax relief through a merger of functions and programs, serve large and distinct constituencies, and offer a broad range of services and functions that will only be diminished by the governor’s proposal.
Maine needs small mission-focused agencies, offering excellent customer service, able to react quickly to trends and new demands, accountable for their work and decisions, and constantly repositioning themselves to serve the needs of Maine’s economy and people. Maine does not need a super natural resource agency that will be more expensive and less responsive.
There appears to be no support for the Governor’s latest proposal amongst members of the Appropriations Committee, but until final action on the budget occurs, nothing can be taken for granted. The most likely scenario at this point is that the merger will be rejected, but the $1.2 million in savings will be parceled out to the agencies that will have to make deeper cuts in their budgets.
Until the legislature adjourns, I will try to keep you informed through this blog, with a new updated report on legislative action posted here every Tuesday.