MEDWAY, Maine — Maine Forest Service Sgt. Peter Pelletier doesn’t know exactly how many landowners statewide have cut public access to their lands, but he counts eight to 10 in Hancock, Penobscot and Washington counties who have gated their properties just in the last year.
“It’s a big drop,” he said.
The closures threaten vital state recreation industries — especially snowmobiling, hunting and ATV riding — and are caused by trash like Pelletier found on land off Route 157 on Saturday. Mounds of what looked like broken window glass, discarded rifle shell casings, paper bags, busted beer bottles and paper targets were among the debris on an impromptu shooting range.
That’s why the Forest Service and the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine held Landowner Appreciation Clean-Up Day on Saturday. Dozens of volunteers worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on about 130 privately owned lands around the state collecting trash — with landowners’ permission, Pelletier said.
“If it’s gated off, it is no longer there [for public use],” Pelletier said. “It is something that has been passed down through generations that we have had access to, in most all of Maine, and it is getting to a point now where you can’t blame the landowners for a select few who are causing these problems and depositing this refuse all over the countryside and ruining it for the rest of us.”
Rangers and volunteers from the Pleasant River Fish and Game Club, Maine Trappers Association, Down East Corrections Department, Boy and Girl Scouts of America, Roxbury ATV Club, Rangeley Snowmobile Club and Houlton High School were among those who cleaned parcels from Biddeford to Presque Isle, officials said.
Besides selecting the areas cleaned, the rangers supervised the cleanup and equipped the volunteers.
Isamar Vergez was among the volunteers. Vergez, a New Hampshire resident who is training to become a certified nursing assistant with Penobscot Job Corps in Bangor, said she wanted to give something back to the state that was giving her free training.
Her group hit lands in Milford, Old Town and Medway.
“To be honest with you, it kind of feels good. There’s not so much we can do financially to give back, but at least it’s a fact that we did something,” Vergez said. “I’d rather it be us who know what we’re doing and are doing it for good intentions. So why not?”
Pelletier doubted that anyone could accurately count the number of landowners who had cut public usage of their lands. So many different recreational groups use land that keeping track of lands being used would be really difficult, he said.
But Ranger Gerald Parsons said an increasing number of owners of lands large and small are gating their properties as all kinds of trash continues to be illegally dumped. Couches, tires, containers of used motor oil, wooden pallets, building materials and demolition debris were among the materials his group saw as it went from Milford to Medway.
Parsons said he suspects that most of the illegal activity is fueled by a few people trying to avoid trash fees.
Recreational groups such as ATV and snowmobile clubs suffer the most from illegal dumping and land closures, Parson said, and that’s a sad twist. Members of such groups typically do the most to prevent illegal dumping, often policing land themselves or reporting illegal dumping problems, he said.
“It is not necessarily the ATV riders and snowmobile riders. They don’t haul tires out into the woods and dump them,” he said. “They do their part to keep land open.”