A task force created by Gov. Paul LePage has recommended that the state begin arming forest rangers over a period of several years.
Rangers are trained law enforcement officers who primarily focus on forest conservation law and firefighting but are not currently allowed to carry guns.
State law would have to be changed to arm forest rangers.
Four members of the panel recommended arming all forest rangers, four more recommended arming the rangers incrementally over several years, and two members representing landowner groups opposed any arming of rangers.
Those landowner representatives later said they could support a test allowing a small group of rangers to carry weapons, so long as that test was followed by a “report back” period.
Chief ranger pilot John Crowley said that 50 percent of rangers’ work is law enforcement such as dealing with vandalism, arson, timber trespass and theft.
“We’ve had rangers shot, shot at, held hostage, threatened,” Crowley said Monday. “We deal with the same people as wardens and state police.”
Rangers, who are equipped with pepper spray and handcuffs, issue summons and are expected to detain and arrest people if warranted.
“This is about giving us the tools and training to do the job we do right now,” said Crowley, who has worked for the Maine Forest Service for nearly 10 years.
LePage issued an executive order that formed the task force in response to LD 297, An Act to Require Forest Rangers to be Trained in Order to Allow Them to Carry Firearms, on May 10.
The bill was carried over to the legislative session that begins early next year.
Most task force members said they felt that forest rangers are regularly placed in “harm’s way” during the normal course of their duties. At the same time, the report points out that during the period of time studied, forest rangers had not submitted a single workers’ compensation claim for injury caused by an assault by another person.
One Maine forest ranger was shot in 1989 when he and a Washington County sheriff’s deputy answered a call in Crawford.
Forest rangers handle a variety of natural resource-related complaints. According to the task force report, the top five complaints (by number) that Maine forest rangers investigated from 2010 until 2013 were:
— Open burning violations (1,978 incidents).
— Forest products theft (1,366 incidents).
— Litter or illegal dumping (1,215 incidents).
— Timber harvesting laws (1,110 incidents).
— Forest practices standards issues (977 incidents).
In testimony prepared for the debate on LD 297 last spring, the Maine Forest Products Council opposed arming rangers.
“A single fact speaks volumes about how well Maine’s forest rangers interact with the public and manage risk,” Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, testified in April. “They have carried pepper spray for self-defense for many years, yet only one ranger has ever used it — against a threatening dog in 2008.”
Strauch also said equipping, training and retraining rangers to carry guns would divert time that could be spent on the agency’s primary function, protecting the forests of Maine.
The executive order cited significant policy and financial changes that would be required should that bill become law.
The report itemized three possible options for arming rangers that would cost between $142,837 and $2.1 million.
The cost discrepancy is based on the amount of training that would be required for the differing proposals and the number of rangers who would receive each level of training.
According to the report, just purchasing guns and ammunition clips for 74 forest rangers would cost $40,700 — $550 per ranger — and providing a ballistic vest for each ranger would cost another $938 per person, for a total of $69,412.
In an appendix to the final task force report, 31 states were studied to find out whether their forest rangers were armed. Only one state, New York, arms all of its rangers and environmental officers. A total of 19 states prohibit all rangers from bearing arms, while another 11 states select and train a limited number of rangers to serve as conservation law enforcement officers.