Despite the rhetoric about the importance of maintaining Maine’s traditional recreational access to private lands, and the many ideas, recommendations, reports, task forces, committees, boards, legislative bills, projects, programs and conferences we’ve launched over the years, today we’re right back where we started.

Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is about to move its landowner relations position and program back to the Maine Warden Service. This is a serious mistake. Landowner relations are more than a law enforcement issue.

DIF&W’s relatively new landowner relations position, created in 2011 by the Legislature, is a high-level job located in the commissioner’s office. Moving it downstairs to the Warden Service would return us to the days when landowner relations was a one-dimensional issue: law enforcement.

Mark Latti, who left the position in May, noted, “Access is the key to Maine’s outdoor heritage and traditions, as well as our outdoor recreational economy. The department sells over half a million licenses and registrations each year, and the bulk of these activities occur on private land. Over 90 percent of the state is privately owned, and continued loss of access will threaten both our natural resource-based economy and our outdoor sporting heritage.”

The sad saga of landowner relations programs at state agencies is long and frustrating, despite the constant good work and effort of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, the Maine Snowmobile Association and other groups. I remember in the early 2000s when SAM got a grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund and hired Roberta Scruggs to prepare “A Practical Guide to Preserving Public Access to Private Land.” It was loaded with good ideas and recommendations. None was adopted.

We tried again in 2003, through an ATV Task Force appointed by Gov. John Baldacci and chaired by Inland Fisheries’s Deputy Commissioner Paul Jacques. The task force hired Scruggs, who created an exceptional report and plan and organized a conference to move the recommendations forward. Most of the 47 recommendations were ignored.

In 2012, the three organizations convinced legislators to create an entirely new concept for the landowner relations program. This version of the landowner relations program was to be much more than a law enforcement program. Its primary goal was actually to improve relations between landowners and those who would use their land by:

• Encouraging landowners to allow outdoor recreationists access to their property to hunt, fish or engage in other outdoor recreational pursuits.

• Fostering good relationships between landowners and outdoor recreationists.

• Promoting high standards of courtesy, respect and responsibility by outdoor recreationists in their relations with landowners.

The last time a landowner relations program was under the jurisdiction of the Maine Warden Service, it failed.

In 2004, an outside professional assessment of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife offered insights into this failure, criticizing the department for “putting a … warden in this (landowner relations) position so he can be a sergeant, instead of filling the position with the right person, warden or not, (which) can lead to program ineffectiveness.”

The assessment was performed by the Management Assistance Team of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and reported that “the landowner relations position would work well as a direct arm of the commissioner, more high profile, using a broad range of skills and experience as well as sound comprehension of laws and regulations and law enforcement tools.

In that year, the Small Woodland Owners Association got a Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund grant to contract with Harry Vanderweide and me to design a landowner relations program and system. The association’s Tom Doak and the department’s Latti worked with us on the project, which resulted in the successful legislative bill that repealed all of the landowner relations program language in MRS Title 12, including the failed Supersport Program, and replaced it with broad authority for the agency to create a new landowner relations program.

Frustrated that it wasn’t happening, Doak and I created the “Elements of a Comprehensive Landowner Relations Plan,” and presented it to the department more than a year ago. None of those elements has been adopted. And now, we’re back where we started. Very sad.

Doak told me recently, “I am most surprised that land users are not demanding a (landowner relations) program. They have the most to lose. Landowners should not have to carry this ball.”

While it is disappointing to see the state ignoring its responsibilities, this emphasizes the need for every one of us who recreates on private land to step up to the challenge of creating good and lasting relationships with private landowners.

“When we asked landowners what they wanted most of all, they said respect,” Doak said.

Land users, are you listening?

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.