Monday March 18, 2013 | 09:07 AM
Posted by Mike Tetreault

I’ve hiked many a mile over land in the Maine woods that didn’t belong to me.  And I just might have eaten a few berries along the way.

This week, state legislators considered a bill that would require landowner access to pick fiddleheads, prompting a debate about just what should be allowed on private land.

The Nature Conservancy isn’t formally taking a position on this issue, but the discussion got me thinking about what we can all do personally to protect both Maine’s natural places and the opportunity to enjoy them.

Maine has one of the smallest percentages of public land in the nation – with a full 90 percent in private ownership. But we’re proud of our rare and longstanding tradition of allowing public access to private lands.

Does requiring formal permission for foraging take away from that tradition?

Hunters, fishermen, hikers and birders travel from all over the world to spend time in nature here – frequently on private land, some of which is owned by The Nature Conservancy. The state’s network of snowmobile trails would be defunct without willing landowners. Some worry that any restriction of access starts us down the road to the countless fences and no trespassing signs that fill the forests elsewhere.

Studies have shown that reducing access to this land would have serious economic impacts to our tourism industry. And large private owners have often been vilified for “posting” their lands. Outfitters, guides, restaurants and hotels depend upon this access to attract customers.

Working to provide this access to nature is something that we, at The Nature Conservancy, have always valued. But we also own quite a bit of land in Maine, and I’ve seen the abuses that landowners suffer.

Each year, significant amounts of garbage are dumped on our preserves – including an entire couch that appeared last summer (an incident that was filmed and may be featured on North Woods Law). We’ve seen heavy metal gates sawed off their posts and carted away – presumably stolen for the scrap metal value. Boardwalks have been destroyed by people building campfires right on the structure.

What can you do? Be a courteous guest. Follow the Leave No Trace principles whenever possible, and if you want to harvest spruce tips or fiddleheads or wild mushrooms, have a conversation with the landowner first.

Participate in Landowner Appreciation Day. Each September, local groups sponsor a cleanup day to thank landowners for what they provide.

It’s sad that we’re considering regulating common courtesy. If we all took a little more care, maybe things wouldn’t have reached the point of legislation. So shake a hand, make a call. Say thank you.

And just maybe, we won’t reach a point where we need fences to be good neighbors.

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Mike Tetreault leads The Nature Conservancy in Maine, where he works with partners in conservation, government and community development to identify solutions which ensure that Maine's natural resources are available for people and for nature.

He holds a degree in environmental studies from Brown and a MS from the field naturalist program at the University of Vermont, and has studied resource management in Kenya, Mexico and throughout New England.

Tetreault started his career teaching wilderness leadership and environmental education, and has worked for The Nature Conservancy since 1998. He lives in Bath with his wife, their daughter and a menagerie of pets.

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