ELLSWORTH, Maine — The state’s forest rangers are finding their hands more full than they would like these days — with all kinds of trash.
According to the Maine Forest Service, rangers investigated nearly 200 littering complaints from Maine landowners in 2008. That represents an increase of about 45 percent since 2005.
“We take littering very seriously,” said Jeff Currier, district ranger for the Downeast District, which covers southern Washington and Hancock counties. “And we work very hard to make sure we identify the people responsible.”
Locations for the illegal dump sites vary from back roads to abandoned log landing and remote camp sites. The items that are dumped also vary and can include large items such as refrigerators, computer monitors and fluorescent bulbs, as well as household garbage.
There are a number of possible reasons for the increase in littering, including the “pay-per-bag” systems in municipalities and the continuing poor economy, but Currier said recently that he did not see any direct connection between those factors and the steady increase in littering cases.
According to Currier, the state logs all reports of illegal dumping and keeps a database of that information.
“We work with the database and can plot that with GPS,” he said. “We can see patterns and use that information to coordinate our patrol efforts.”
Washington and Hancock counties seem to have a slightly higher number of complaints than other areas to the north and south, Currier said, but he stressed that the problem of illegal dumping is not limited to those to areas. It is a statewide problem, he said.
Littering creates a mess in the woods and, on occasion, can cause environmental damage. He said the dumping problem also could endanger Maine’s tradition of public access to private lands.
“Most landowners in Maine are generous and allow recreational access to their land without a fee or permit,” Currier said. “If they find garbage dumped on their land, the easiest thing for them to do is to put up a gate and keep people out. We want to have landowners to feel that they can continue to provide that kind of access. It’s important to the Maine way of life.”
One of the biggest challenges rangers face in investigating littering cases is the lack of evidence. According to Currier, the rangers go to great lengths to find evidence so they can prosecute the case.
“When we have a report, we go through the garbage item by item trying to find evidence of how it got there and who it belongs to,” he said. “Sometimes, you can imagine, that can be pretty disgusting.”
About 30 percent of the cases statewide are not prosecuted because of lack of evidence, according to the Forest Service, but nearly half of the 2008 complaints resulted in legal action, some of which are still pending.
Currier recalled one incident in which a landowner discovered a couch that had been dumped on his property. The ranger investigating searched the couch carefully and discovered a prescription bottle beneath the cushions. He traced the bottle to the former owner of the couch who said she had paid two men $50 to take the couch to the dump. They had taken her money, but dumped the couch on a back road.
The ranger tracked down the two men and they eventually were fined $200 each and had to pay restitution to the woman.
The state has three categories of littering based on the amount that is dumped, and fines can go as high $1,000 plus restitution for the cost of the cleanup.
Currier said they often remind people that “the fee at the transfer station is a lot cheaper than a day in court and up to $1,000 and restitution for the cleanup.”
Anyone who witnesses littering in forested areas can contact the Maine Forest Service at 800-750-9777.