AUGUSTA — A Maine task force is recommending that the state’s forest rangers be armed incrementally over a period of several years.

The report by the group led by Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris says some members initially opposed arming rangers, but agreed to back a proposal to allow a small group to carry firearms for a trial period.

The group was formed by an executive order from Republican Gov. Paul LePage last spring because he said he needed more information before making a decision on a bill that would arm Maine’s rangers.

Critics say arming rangers is unnecessary and would transform their role and relationship with the public. But rangers say their job sometimes puts them in contact with dangerous people like thieves and vandals in remote locations.

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.

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.

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