If you are headed out to pick fiddleheads on someone else’s land, please know that you are required by law to get the landowner’s permission. I’m sure this is a surprise to you.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, and I collaborated on legislation this session to require foragers to get permission from private landowners, eventually focusing on applying that requirement only to those picking commercial crops. At the public hearing on L.D. 128, all the major groups representing landowners testified for the bill, while those who feel entitled to forage on private land testified against it. But some great research by legislative staff later discovered that this is already a law.

I have spent much of my life advocating for more respect for private landowners and better relationships between those of us who recreate on private land and the owners of that land. We’ve made a lot of progress, but still have constant complaints and problems. When I was at the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, we even had thank-you kits that members could purchase to give to landowners who allowed them to use their land.

It is very irritating to find that someone has grabbed the fiddleheads or mushrooms off my woodlot before I got to them. And clearly, anyone who is on my land to commercially harvest something ought to be required to have my permission. While the Legislature considered the bill, I heard from lots of private landowners who are upset with foragers.

My friend Tim Marks was even featured in a Wall Street Journal news story about the issue. He picks and sells fiddleheads on his Richmond property which is posted, and foragers sneak in at night to steal his crops.

Sen. Saviello and I were trashed by some people on this issue. They seem to think they are entitled to anything on privately owned land, and they were very nasty in their attacks on us.

One guy who attacked us said he enjoyed taking his two young sons around town, gathering fiddleheads and other crops. He saw no reason to find out who owned the land or to get permission to enjoy that land. What a terrible lesson he’s taught his children!

A staff member in the attorney general’s office weighed in on one issue, foraging on public lands and in state parks. We were informed that it is a class E crime to remove anything natural from public lands “except as authorized by the Bureau or allowed by laws and rules relating to hunting, fishing, and trapping.” The good news is that a policy allows foraging on public lands. But you still can’t forage in state parks.

Most recently, we were all surprised to discover that foraging is already illegal on private land without permission. You’ll find that law in Title 14, Part 7, Chapter 739, Subchapter 2: Trespass.

Here’s what it says: “Without permission of the owner a person may not cut down, destroy, damage or carry away any forest products, ornamental or fruit tree, agricultural produce, stones, ore, goods or property of any kind from land not that person’s own.”

Later on in the statute, you’ll find a definition of “substantive offenses,” including “Property — means anything of value, including but not limited to real estate and things growing thereon, affixed to or found therein.” Yes, it says “things growing thereon.” The penalties for doing this are severe.

And there’s more. Another section defines theft as obtaining control over the property of another with intent to deprive the other person of the property. Yup. That property could be fiddleheads or mushrooms.

Some sportsmen attacked Tom and me, suggesting that our law would apply to hunters if they nibbled a few blackberries while hunting on private land. The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine objected on these grounds and published columns in various newspapers and sporting magazines raising the alarm about this issue.

Boy, are they going to be surprised to learn that they’re already in big trouble if they do this. The theft law specifies that a person with a dangerous weapon at the time of the offense is guilty of a class C felony, with fines up to $10,000.

Just as my advice has always been to ask permission before you hunt or fish on someone’s private property, I’d include a new recommendation to ask permission if you intend to nibble your way along or harvest a bunch of fiddleheads or mushrooms.

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.

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