Maine Sporting Camps
If you’ve ever wondered if the idea of “community” is disappearing from Maine, just show up at the local rod and gun club. Last time I checked there were more than 200 across the state and most are firmly embedded in their community.
Many are organized around a particular town, some are devoted to a particular species, such as bass or trout, and others are dedicated to a special pursuit, such as fly fishing or bowhunting. Some are mostly social clubs, where the fried turkey is the star of the meeting. But many do a lot more, including teaching kids about the outdoors, raising funds for local charities, providing scholarships and operating shooting ranges.
Recently the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, a 14,000-member lobbying group for hunters and anglers, brought together about 50 leaders from some of the most active sporting clubs in the state to share ideas.
George Smith, SAM’s executive director, asked me to speak about research I did for SAM several years ago on ways to encourage Maine’s landowners to open their land to others. As I wrote then, the importance of keeping private land open for public recreational use can be demonstrated by four simple facts.
• About 94 percent of Maine’s land is in private hands.
• Up to 90 percent of Maine’s adult population enjoys outdoor recreation, from backcountry adventures to walks in the woods.
• Landowners also are land users. With so much of the state in private hands, it would be a small world indeed if we could only hike, hunt, ride recreational vehicles, take photos or watch wildlife on our own property.
• Much of Maine’s economy as well as its quality of life depend upon access to the outdoors.
As Smith often says, “There’s no issue more critical access to all of us who love the Maine outdoors and enjoy spending our time there.”
Yet the relationship between landowners and land users is a fragile one. It can be gradually worn away by small abuses and it can be sharply damaged when high-profile events or issues make landowners feel unsafe on their own property. Mainers felt that way when snowmobiles started becoming popular in the 1970s and when personal watercraft began speeding around lakes in the 1990s. Few of us have forgotten the story of Karen Wood, who was fatally shot by a deer hunter in 1988, while hanging up clothes in her back yard. In the early years of this decade, ATVs dominated the headlines as irresponsible riders jeopardized access for all recreational activities.
The biggest concern for landowners is loss of control. If they allow recreational access, someone might damage their land, hurt their animals, leave litter, pollute streams or simply make it impossible for landowners to enjoy their own property. What if visitors won’t leave when asked? What if they get angry or violent? One Maine landowner was badly beaten by out-of-state hunters a few years ago.
The solution often advocated is face-to-face interaction between landowners and land users, but many sportsmen aren’t comfortable knocking on landowners’ doors to ask permission and many landowners aren’t comfortable dealing with such requests.
What’s worked well to defuse conflicts for snowmobilers and ATV riders is a third party – a local club – to insure that landowners and land users get what they need. Snowmobile and ATV clubs also support charities, raise funds, and maintain trails. Yet the job they work hardest on is dealing with landowners. Through much of the state, when landowners have a problem, they can call their local club for help in working things out.
Sporting clubs could pay a similar role for anglers and especially hunters, helping to increase access, make hunting and fishing more enjoyable, and attract new and younger members.
To make it work, clubs need to reach out to the landowners and sportsmen in their town. Fortunately there are relatively easy ways to find them. Property tax rolls are open to the public and available either free (some are even posted online) or for a small fee. Clubs also can buy lists of licensed hunters and anglers in their town from the state for a few cents per name.
Landowners could then be asked if they allow access or would consider allowing it under specific circumstances or conditions. Some landowners might want to reserve certain days for their own use. Others might permit hunters, but only on foot. Some might limit the number of hunters on their property at one time or simply need an intermediary to handle request access. For instance, the landowner might put up signs saying: “Access by permission only,” but the contact number would direct hunters to a club member. Clubs also could mediate disputes, clean up debris or repair damage as snowmobile and ATV clubs do. It would speed along that process to hold a fundraiser to create a damage mitigation fund.
Hunters and anglers would benefit because they’d have a place to find out where and when hunting is allowed, learn about new laws and be informed about potential problems. Two-way communication could resolve a lot of access issues.
Landowner relations is a big job, one the state agencies have never done very well. Like most things in Maine, it really comes down to what happens in each community. Sporting clubs are an integral part of many Maine communities and they can play an important role in smoothing out the relationship between landowners and sportsmen, especially hunters.
As one landowner told me, she doesn’t mind hunters on her property – in fact, she hunts herself – but she does like to know who they are and when they’re on her land. She doesn’t think that’s unreasonable. And she’s right.
“I don’t want to keep people off my land. I worked very hard to buy this land so it wouldn’t be developed,” she said. “But I want to be able to enjoy it.”