AUGUSTA, Maine — The sprouting wild fiddlehead fern is a sure sign of late spring as well as a source of food and income for some.
But state lawmakers are looking at a bill that would require those harvesting fiddleheads or wild mushrooms for commercial sale to get written permission from the person who owns the land they grow on.
While many people already ask for permission before picking fiddleheads or mushrooms, many do not, said Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton.
Black is the sponsor of LD 421, “An Act To Prohibit the Unauthorized Harvesting of Wild Mushrooms and Fiddleheads,” which was before the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee on Thursday.
“I’ve been a victim of fiddlehead theft for years,” said Rep. Tim Marks, D-Pittston. A retired state trooper, Marks said he caught people taking as many as 100 pounds of fiddleheads from his property. When he asked if they had landowner permission, they lied to him and said they did. Marks was testifying in favor of the bill.
Black’s bill includes provisions that would allow the state to revoke a mushroom-harvesting certification if a person is caught taking mushrooms or fiddleheads without permission.
The bill is largely intended to deter those who are making money by taking wild crops from a private landowner, Black said.
He said some people are doing a “tremendous business” in fiddleheads and mushrooms and he isn’t out to put them out of business. He just wants them to get permission first.
Thomas Doak, executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, also testified in favor of the bill, noting that it protected landowner resources.
Doak said the wild edibles market was expanding in Maine and the U.S. and as more people begin to forage commercially, the pressure on private property will increase.
“We don’t want that expansion to be based on taking something that rightfully belongs to a landowner,” Doak said.
George Smith, a newspaper columnist and former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said the bill made sense to help ensure good relationships between sportsmen and private landowners who have left their property open for public use, including hunting. Smith said increased foraging without permission could lead many to post their land.
“I can see a lot of land being posted as this certification process grows,” Smith said. “I can see losing access to a lot of land because this is happening. If the state is in the position of certifying something, they ought to make sure it is taken with permission.”
At least three people testified against the bill, including Eric Dayan, a Montville resident who forages.
Dayan said state laws that prohibit trespassing and stealing already cover the issue of people taking fiddleheads or mushrooms without permission.
“It’s already illegal to steal and trespass on somebody else’s land,” Dayan said. He said enforcement of the law would also be difficult and it doesn’t specify whether a landowner would have to write himself permission to harvest on his own land. The bill also requires a person transporting fiddleheads or mushrooms that are being sold commercially to possess a bill of sale from the owner of the property from which the edibles were harvested.
David Spahr, the author of the book “Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms,” also spoke against the bill. He said that while some landowners do want people to ask permission, many are not concerned.
He said one person he spoke to said she didn’t want people lining up at the door to get permission to pick fiddleheads. He also said that if a landowner could not be reached, the very short harvest periods for wild edibles, ranging from between a few hours and a few days, could mean good food would go to waste.
“This is neither sensible or enforceable,” Spahr said. The measure would just add a layer of government regulation and interference where it’s not needed, he said.
“What we have here is a solution waiting for a problem,” Spahr said.
Several lawmakers seemed skeptical that there was a problem with people picking wild foods from private property and asked witnesses several times how often they had received complaints about it.
“Where in the state is this such a big problem?” asked Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle. He asked Bill Hamilton, the chief ranger with the Maine Forest Service’s Forest Protection Division, how many complaints his department has received on the matter.
“I haven’t received any,” Hamilton said. But, he said, the Forest Service supports the bill and would be available to respond to complaints as needed.
The committee will take up the bill again later this month to decide on its recommendation to the full Legislature.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Rep. Timothy Marks of Pittston as a Republican. Marks is a Democrat.