AUGUSTA — A proposal to allow Maine’s forest rangers to carry guns resurfaced Tuesday in the State House, once again drawing support from law enforcement groups and opposition from large landowners and the LePage administration.

This is the fourth year in a row that lawmakers have considered proposals to arm or better protect Maine Forest Service rangers who patrol the state’s vast timberlands. Past proposals have fallen victim to cost concerns and political wrangling. The latest bill aims to reduce the costs to taxpayers by allowing forest rangers to carry their own personal guns – rather than state-issued sidearms – as long as they’ve received proper firearms training.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, said forest rangers “are not simply counting bugs or walking around in the woods,” but put their lives on the line, issuing more than 500 summonses and 800 warnings last year. Oftentimes, they are working in some of Maine’s most remote locations.

“Maine forest rangers are law enforcement officers,” Tuell told members of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. “They should be treated like their brothers and sisters in Marine Patrol, Fish and Game, the state police, county sheriffs and local police departments around the state.”

The LePage administration once again raised costs and liability concerns and argued that arming rangers was unnecessary.

“We have always tried to keep rangers out of harm’s way,” said Maine Forest Service director Doug Denico. “For decades we have done that and we are very good at it.”

Maine’s roughly 50 forest rangers enforce state forestry and conservation laws, prevent and fight woodland fires, and work with landowners on everything from timber harvesting plans to invasive species management. But they also investigate criminal activity and, along with armed officers from the Maine Warden Service, are often the only law enforcement agents patrolling the backwoods of Maine. While forest rangers carry handcuffs and pepper spray – and were provided with bullet-proof vests just last year – rangers have been unable to gain legislative or administrative approval to carry guns.

While no rangers have been killed on duty by hostile acts in recent history, a ranger was shot in 1989 while responding to an incident with police. Others have been assaulted.

David Trahan, a former state senator from Waldoboro who has spent more than 30 years working as a logger, told committee members that they were “naive if you think that firearms are not involved in a forest ranger’s work.”

Trahan, who is executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine but was speaking Tuesday on his own behalf, told how a neighboring landowner once threatened him and his equipment. And even after Trahan involved police, the man would “target practice in his front yard to intimidate me.”

In another incident, a landowner told Trahan that he couldn’t harvest his woodlot because his neighbor was causing trouble. Two weeks later, the neighbor shot and killed the landowner.

“Guns are part of this business,” Trahan said. “I don’t want forest rangers to have to become law enforcement, but the people in the Legislature have given them the responsibility. And with that comes the responsibility of making them safe.”

As they have in the past, LePage administration officials and representatives from the Maine Forest Products Council and Maine Woodland Owners led opposition to the latest proposal. Denico testified that the administration is concerned about a lack of training, although Tuell proposed amending the bill to require that rangers receive training to “state police standards” for carrying a firearm on duty.

Since 2013, the Maine Forest Service has revisited all of its policies to give even more advice to rangers to “extract themselves” from potentially dangerous situations by calling in other law enforcement. Additionally, the “use of force/dangerous persons” reports that rangers are required to file show, on average, just six reports per year “because we train these people in how not to get into trouble,” Denico said.

Patrick Gagnon, president of the Maine State Law Enforcement Officers Association, said he would gladly organize free sessions by certified instructors for forest rangers interested in receiving the training needed to arm themselves while on duty.

“Any resident in the state of Maine can buy a gun today, unless they are prohibited, and carry it without any training,” Gagnon said. “So there are a lot of people out there, wood cutters or landowners, that are carrying and they have no training. And this is what our officers are up against.”

It is unclear if Tuell’s bill can muster enough support to survive a likely veto by LePage.

In 2013, lawmakers punted on a bill to arm rangers after LePage set up a task force to examine the issue. The majority of members on that task force recommended providing firearms to rangers. However, the administration has fought subsequent proposals over cost and training concerns.

Two years ago, LePage proposed stripping rangers of their law enforcement responsibilities and reducing their ranks even as he created a new classification of natural resources enforcement officers trained like police. Lawmakers rejected that proposal as part of the governor’s budget, however.

 Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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