Wednesday, April 23, 2014
By ALANNA DURKIN The Associated Press
AUGUSTA - A special group in Maine is examining whether forest rangers should be allowed to carry firearms, something rangers say is critical to protecting them from the growing dangers they face in the field.
The group, which met for the third time this month, was formed by an executive order from Gov. Paul LePage last spring because the Republican governor said he needed more information before making a decision on a bill that would arm Maine's roughly 70 forest rangers.
Critics say arming rangers, whose primary responsibilities include protecting Maine's natural resources from fire, would dramatically transform their role and relationship with the public. But rangers who have long advocated for carrying weapons say their job sometimes puts them in contact with dangerous people like thieves and vandals in remote locations, leaving them vulnerable.
"Even if it's only that once in my career that I have a sidearm to protect me -- and it makes the difference of me making it home to my family or not -- then it will be well worth it," said Jeremiah Crockett, a ranger of more than 13 years, who was interviewed while off duty.
The group is now hearing from experts and gathering data and information prior to making a recommendation to the governor in December, said John Morris, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety and chairman of the task force. They're also looking at several other issues, like whether there should be cross-training and collaboration between the rangers, Maine Warden Service and Maine Marine Patrol, he said.
The contentious debate over whether to arm Maine's rangers is not a new one. Lawmakers approved a similar bill in the late '90s but passed legislation shortly afterward requiring rangers to sell their firearms. Several bills introduced since then have failed.
It has faced staunch opposition from some state officials and groups who say rangers' need for weapons is both inappropriate and unnecessary. Rangers should focus on protecting the state's natural resources, which has been their traditional role, said Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council which represents loggers, sawmills, paper mills.
"We think that when you arm a ranger, you are essentially moving them into more of a public safety role and then all other resource protection activities become secondary to that role," said. Armed rangers would likely be used as backup for other law enforcement officers, and forest protection would take a back seat to things like firearm training, he said.
Strauch also pointed to concerns about the cost, not only to arm the rangers, but to also consistently train them. The state hasn't estimated how much the proposal would cost because the bill didn't advance, but when a similar measure was rejected in 2000, analysts pegged the first-year cost at about $196,000, with annuals costs thereafter of about $175,000.
Doug Denico, director of the forestry division within the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, opposed the bill when it was debated in committee but declined to comment for this story. In his written testimony in April, Denico said rangers are rarely confronted with weapons, pointing to only six reported incidents in the last five years in which a weapon was involved or the ranger was physically confronted.
But supporters say that Maine's forest rangers should carry guns, like those in neighboring New Hampshire, because they often work alone and in remote, rural areas of the state.
Crockett said rangers are also increasingly tasked with not only fire suppression, but also encounter vandals, thieves and people addicted to drugs in the forest who can pose a serious threat. There have been several times in which he has felt he was at risk to the point where he needed to retreat, he said.
"My concern is that retreat is not always going to be possible," he said.