Monday, March 10, 2014
AUGUSTA — Despite a major push by forest rangers to get the power to carry guns, a bill to allow them to do just that has stalled and may be carried over for consideration next year.
Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, and Rep. Catherine Nadeau, D-Winslow, have worked for months on the legislation, L.D. 297, which would require forest rangers to get training so they can carry firearms. It's one of the lesser-known gun bills to come before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which has held public hearings on more than two dozen gun measures.
Nearly 20 forest rangers testified in favor of the bill last month, with many saying they need to be able to protect themselves while they patrol remote areas and confront people who might be breaking the law.
Forest Ranger Gary Cook told the committee of an incident in Litchfield in which he confronted a man about burning debris.
"The angry, drug crazed man pulled a gun on a trooper and I," he said, according to written testimony. "I was looking at sure death if the trooper hadn't been with me and controlled the situation."
However, the state agency that oversees the forest rangers doesn't back the bill.
Doug Denico, director of the forestry division at the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, testified in opposition to the bill, citing a concern that allowing rangers to carry guns could "alienate the constituency." He said in the past five years, only six of the rangers' encounters have involved guns or a physical confrontation.
"The department has several policies to directly guide ranger behavior where use of force could be a possibility and they are encouraged to not even engage in situations that appear to lead to confrontation," he said, according to written testimony. "The department is willing to consider other solutions to further reduce risk to employees."
Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, said the governor needs more information before he can make a decision on the issue, which is why he signed an executive order on Friday to create a 10-member task force. The order specifically mentions L.D. 297, noting that it could "dramatically alter the role of government responsibility to the forest products community."
The task force will study "not only the safety concerns" raised by forest rangers, but whether there are "efficiencies to be gained by merging law enforcement" among all of the state's natural resource agencies, Bennett said. The text of the executive order calls for a "comprehensive review of the mission of Maine forest rangers" and states that the bill will have "long-term financial implications" for the state.
At the public hearing, a wildlife biologist with Huber Resources Corp. testified against the bill, saying he sees no need to arm the rangers.
"Their primary duty is preventing and fighting forest fires, and a gun is of no value in that role," said Barry Burgason, according to written testimony from the April 24 public hearing.
Among the duties of the forest service is prevention and suppression of forest fires, fighting insect and disease outbreaks, and watching out for poor forest practices, according to the Maine Forest Service website. The department has 74 rangers, according to the Maine Forest Products Council, which opposes the bill. The Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine testified in opposition as well.
Cook and others said the issue of arming forest rangers goes back to the late 1990s, when the Legislature passed a law to allow forest rangers to carry guns. But two years later, a separate bill was amended to make it unlawful for anyone in the Department of Conservation to carry a firearm, which ended the program, Cook said.
On Monday, Dunphy and Nadeau met with five forest rangers at a Dunkin' Donuts in Waterville to discuss what to do now that the governor has created a task force. The bill could be carried over for consideration next year once the task force report is complete.
"We just don't want it to die," Nadeau said. "It's (the forest rangers') bill, and the avenue they want to take is what we'll respect."
Two rangers who attended the meeting — Cook and John Crowley, chief ranger pilot — could not be reached for comment Monday.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, chairman of the criminal justice committee, said he agrees with the bill but doesn't want it to go forward without any funding. Each year, dozens of bills pass in both the House and Senate but never go anywhere because the Appropriations Committee has no money to pay for them.
Because Gerzofsky has not released the bill from committee, there's no official estimate of cost. When the bill failed to pass in 2001, it contained a cost estimate of more than $500,000.
"If you pass this, it's going to be killed in Appropriations," he said. "There's no money."
Susan Cover — 621-5643