As Mainers, we should take pride in the centuries-old tradition that keeps thousands of acres of private land open for public use. It says something that the state’s vital outdoor recreation industry can rely so heavily and faithfully on the many private landowners who allow access to hunters, fishermen and hikers, and ask nothing in return but a little consideration.

Most of the time, the landowners get that consideration. But they get a good amount of litter, too, and it’s causing many of them to rethink their generosity.

Illegal dumping, not just of candy wrappers and beer cans, but also of old mattresses and broken-down appliances, is the No. 1 reason landowners restrict access, and that is happening more and more.

In a state so wide open and tough to patrol, it is a problem with no easy solution. But any answer has to tackle the problem for both sides, making it easier for landowners to keep their property clear while cutting down on the cost of disposing of bulk items and hazardous waste.

GETTING WORSE

Harsh penalties for illegal dumping are already on the books in Maine. On the basis of a 2011 law, fines range from $100 for small amounts to as much as $25,000 for large amounts and repeat offenders.

But the sites that suffer from dumping are chosen for the same reason they are enjoyed by outdoor recreationists – their remoteness. When you can easily drive to a place in the woods where no one is within earshot, there is not much fear of getting caught.

Forest rangers are seeing the result. One told the Morning Sentinel last year that illegal dumping complaints had grown from only 2 percent to 3 percent of all complaints about 20 years ago to 13 percent of all calls in 2013.

The illegal trash disposal is ongoing and almost overwhelming. In 2012, as part of the state’s Landowner Appreciation Cleanup Day, volunteers removed 190,000 pounds of trash and nearly 1,000 tires from 130 sites around Maine. The next year, a smaller group removed 50,000 pounds of trash, 235 tires and 62 appliances from the woods.

Landowners are noticing, too. In a survey conducted by the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, 29 percent of landowners said they now restrict access to their land while another 29 percent are considering it. Again and again, littering and trash are cited as the top reasons.

STATE RESPONSE

The state’s response has come in fits and starts, without a level of funding or commitment that matches the value the open private land provides, and without a lot of support for the people who investigate dumping sites.

Game wardens now distribute kits to landowners that include signs, padlocks and surveillance cameras, as well as special trash bags so land users can pick up trash they come across while enjoying the outdoors.

Co-sponsored by Reps. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, and Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, a bill now before the Legislature, L.D. 1321, would help buttress those efforts, get more land users on board and generally help improve relations with landowners.

These initiatives deserve support, and occasional review, so that we can measure their effectiveness.

But not all, or even most, of the perpetrators are land users. More often than not, the trash is dumped by local residents. Even the best land user-landowner relationship won’t solve things.

STEP UP COOPERATION

So, greater cooperation is needed between the local and state agencies that investigate chronic dumping sites, perhaps through a shared database, so that resources such as patrol and surveillance can be better allocated where they are needed.

And in areas where trash disposal, particularly of large or hazardous items, is costly or inconvenient, changes must be considered. Would increased hours at the nearest transfer station help? What about more free disposal days, or some kind of buy-back program, using creative funding? In rural areas, can communities work together to make trash disposal easier?

Maine needs to attack this problem comprehensively to have an impact. For its entire history and then some, the state has held the hospitality of its private landowners in high regard. Let’s make sure that it’s not just lip service.