Declining public access to private land is a key issue in 2018

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When V. Paul Reynolds’ article appeared in the Piscataquis Observer (“Careless hunters, ticks, declining land access big stories of 2017”), I took notice as forestry professor who has researched forest recreation in Maine. His year-in-review of sportsmen’s issues in 2017 correctly identified declining public access to private land as a key issue. This issue continues in 2018, as the legislature considers funding the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife’s Landowner Relations Program (LD1391) in the Appropriations Committee which had the unanimous support of the committee on Inland Fisheries and Willdife.

I have studied recreation access to private lands in Maine for the last 10 years beginning with a Penobscot County landowner survey in 2007 and most recently a 2014 statewide survey of sportsmen. All signs point to a growing crisis: Nearly 30 percent of landowners plan to restrict of prohibit some types of recreation their land in the future. Another 29 percent are “maybe” considering restrictions. This matches what our data suggest about sportsmen. About 58 percent of sportsmen reported that posting is increasing and that there is not enough open land and 63 percent have directly experienced the posting of land that they once used for recreation.

The top three negative experiences that landowners are having are: litter, illegal dumping and damage (e.g., to trails, roads, crops, buildings and equipment). Sportsmen report nearly the same list of problems. These issues are largely preventable. Also, people are sometimes surprised to learn that regular Mainers are more likely to post that out-of-state absentee or large landowners. But this makes sense. If you live on your property, then you’re more likely to be concerned about safety and noise issues, and see the problems that can come from public use near your home more frequently. Our research also suggests that it only takes a single negative experience and a landowner will start to think about posting their land.

My conclusions from all this research is that there is certainly shared concern among landowners and sportsmen that can be capitalized on for joint efforts. Both groups of stakeholders share concerns and want actions to reduce illegal dumping and illegal ATV use. There is support for youth programs that promote respect of private land ranging from traditional after-school programs and reinvigorated safety programs to more innovative phone apps and use of YouTube. Both constituencies support the IF&W’s Landowner Relations Program, but its chronic underfunding has led to erratic efforts to support Maine’s tradition of open access through education and other programs. These programs require funding, and the legislature currently has an opportunity to fund these sorts of efforts through supporting LD1391 in Appropriations.

The author is professor of human dimensions of natural resources in the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine. In addition to research expertise, Dr. Leahy has real life experience with this topic as both an avid sportswoman and a landowner in Sebec. She is a member of the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife’s Landowner Relations Advisory Board.

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