September 19, 2013

Our View: Forest rangers don't need guns to do job

Resource management, not enforcing criminal laws, should continue to be their mission.

State forest rangers, worried for their safety when patrolling the vast Maine woodlands in what they see as an increasingly dangerous world, are pushing hard for the right to carry firearms.

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If state forest rangers can make the case that they should be armed, then so can animal control officers, state park rangers and code enforcement officers, all of whom encounter threatening situations from time to time.

1999 File Photo/John Patriquin

But arming rangers would be a major change for the forest service, and it's not clear that it would make them safer, or that it is warranted by the risks they face. It is time, however, to re-examine what forest rangers do, so that they are focusing on resource management, and the job is made as safe as possible.

A task force is now considering the issue, though this is not the first time the Legislature has taken it up. A measure arming rangers passed in 1999, but the effort was not funded, and in 2000 lawmakers revoked it. A bill revisiting the issue in 2001 was not successful.

Rangers returned to push the issue again in the last legislative session, but the bill stalled. Gov. LePage, seeking more information, established the task force, which will report back in December.

Many of the 19 rangers who testified earlier this year in front of a legislative committee said they feel vulnerable when working out in the woods, far from backup. The job, rangers said, is much different than 20 to 30 years ago.

Rangers, they argued, encounter criminals, drug addicts and the mentally ill. They come across marijuana growers and timber thieves.

They serve a role similar to that of other law enforcement entities, the rangers said, yet they are the only ones heading into those situations without a firearm.

But forest rangers come across those situations far less often than other agencies.

An analysis by the Maine Forest Products Council, which is against arming the rangers, showed the rangers issue an average of 500 summonses a year, compared to roughly 4,000 by game wardens. The council also found, based on research by the Maine Department of Labor, that only three rangers have been injured by another person in the last 20 years. Only on one occasion has a ranger deployed his pepper spray, on a dog in 2008.

Additionally, Doug Denico, director of the forestry division, testified that there were only six reported incidents in the last five years involving a weapon or in which a ranger was physically confronted.

If forest rangers can make the case to be armed, then so can animal control officers, state park rangers and code enforcement officers, all of whom find themselves in threatening situations from time to time.

No one wants to see a ranger hurt, and every effort should be made to protect them. Improved communications -- in the field and with other agencies -- and changing their uniforms so rangers are not confused with their armed counterparts are just two suggestions.

If the rangers' job has changed, then the task force should discuss how to change it back. But arming rangers, who have done their job superbly, runs the risk of pulling them further away from forest management and fire suppression, and should be considered only as part of a larger overhaul in natural resource protection.


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