Dr. Clark Granger’s column in the winter edition of the Maine Farm Bureau’s newsletter saddened me. Clark encouraged all private landowners to post their land, confront trespassers, and gate entry points. While, as the owner of 160 acres of land, I share his frustrations, as a sportsman, birder and forager, I am alarmed by his advice.

If you are headed out this spring to bird, forage for fiddleheads, hike or otherwise enjoy the outdoors on someone else’s land, I urge you to ask permission, keep landowners informed of what you’re doing there, and thank them afterward.

During my 18 years at the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, I worked to improve landowner relations in cooperative efforts with groups representing the state’s landowners, including the Maine Farm Bureau. In 2002, responding to a flood of complaints from private landowners, SAM conducted a nationwide study of landowner relations issues and solutions, and issued a report and recommendations in 2003. Despite the advocacy of many groups and individuals, those recommendations were never implemented.

The executive summary of the report concluded with these paragraphs:

“The principles behind successful landowner relations programs are the same everywhere. They increase the benefits and decrease the costs for landowners who keep their property open to public use. They reward responsible land users and make irresponsible ones pay for their mistakes. They involve the community in the solutions.

“Most important of all, landowner relations programs can help people understand that these conflicts threaten more than a handful of landowners or a few recreational sports. Without public access to private land, Maine would be a cramped, cold and unneighborly place to live.”

The final paragraph included this statement of mine:

“There’s no issue more critical to all of us who love the Maine outdoors and enjoy spending our time there.”

In 2007, I created a paper titled, “A Solution to Conflicts and Competition for Recreational Access and Use of Private and Public Lands.” It got a bit of press but little attention otherwise. In the opening paragraph, I reported, “We must understand what motivates each of us and drives the conflicts we’re suffering over our outdoor recreational pursuits, if we are going to figure out how to resolve those conflicts.”

I still think this is critically important. And we are a long way from achieving it.

I left SAM at the end of 2010 to write full time, but I remained involved in these issues. In 2013 the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine received a grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund to “design a program and system that would build and maintain an educated motivated group of recreationists who work with landowners to resolve problems, improve wildlife habitat, and maintain on-going relationships,” among other tasks. SWOAM contracted with Harry Vanderweide and me to implement the project and SWOAM executive director Tom Doak worked with us throughout the process.

One result of the project was a legislative bill that repealed the landowner relations program language in Title 12, replacing it with broad authority for the agency to create new landowner relations programs.

A real breakthrough occurred when the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife joined the effort and agreed to not only assume responsibility for this vastly expanded landowner relations program, but to completely restructure and rejuvenate its landowner relations program. Warden Rick LaFlamme was named the department’s Director of Landowner Relations and is doing a superb job, albeit with limited resources.

Back in 2003, we worked with the Legislature to create the Landowners and Sportsmen Relations Advisory Board, but that board struggled for years to gain any momentum on the key issues of public access to private land. Eventually I left the board, disappointed and discouraged. But I didn’t give up.

Last year the Legislature enacted an amended version of a bill that was sponsored at my request by Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester. The bill reduced the size of the landowner relations board to just 11 members appointed by the department’s commissioner (previously board members were appointed by the governor), authorized the department to create a new program called Keep Maine Clean, and required the agency to issue an annual report on all aspects of its landowner relations program. The governor vetoed the bill but Rep. Espling whipped it through the House and Senate with unanimous votes that overrode the governor’s veto.

The new board is an outstanding group of state leaders, including Clark Granger, who represents the Farm Bureau on the board.

It’s vitally important that we continue to work together to address the concerns of landowners, and to make sure our friends and neighbors are able to use our land in an appropriate and respectful manner.

That’s the Maine way, always has been, and I hope, always will be.

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.