Bill to arm forest rangers earns committee approval despite uncertain funding

Maine Forest Ranger Thomas Liba stands in woods near an illegal maple syrup operation in the Katahdin region in March 2013. A bill being debated in legislature aims to provide guns and training to state forest rangers.
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Maine Forest Ranger Thomas Liba stands in woods near an illegal maple syrup operation in the Katahdin region in March 2013. A bill being debated in legislature aims to provide guns and training to state forest rangers. Buy Photo
By John Holyoke, BDN Staff
Posted Jan. 15, 2014, at 4:37 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee paved the way for a potential funding debate on a bill that would arm the state’s forest rangers, recommending its passage while admitting that funding for the measure had not yet been nailed down.

The committee voted 9-2 (with two absent members allowed to vote until noon on Friday) to approve LD 297. Whether the bill gains appropriations committee approval later this session remains in question.

The bill, supported by the state’s forest rangers, seeks to arm and train those rangers, who are already considered law enforcement officers.

In December, the bill was tabled as the Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Criminal Safety struggled with the funding issue. While the committee has jurisdiction over law enforcement issues, it lacked jurisdiction over the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, of which the Maine Forest Service is one component.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, and Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the chairmen of the committee, met with their counterparts in the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, hoping to iron out a funding plan.

That funding mechanism was not found, but the committee forged ahead nonetheless.

“We are here to make a decision today,” Dion said, explaining his unwillingness to table the bill again in order to line up funding. “Others will make theirs in due time.”

Dion challenged committee members to battle for the bill as it moves forward, and to convince others to approve it during appropriations debate.

“I think we have the responsibility to provide some moral leadership [regarding the risk to] life and safety of the rangers,” Dion said.

Others, including Gerzofsky and Rep. Joshua Plante, D-Berwick, said the funding of the measure, estimated at between $142,000 and $2.1 million, was still a key concern.

“It’s not that we don’t believe that the protection [of rangers] is most important,” Plante said. “But we don’t know where the money is coming from.”

Gerzofsky was more blunt. He said that the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry was not likely to support the measure it has repeatedly opposed in the past.

“The department has the authority to do a lot of things right now. They have chosen not to. They have historically chosen not to,” Gerzofsky said.

And without the support of that department, moving forward would be difficult, Gerzofsky said.

“You don’t do the policy and then the funding,” he said.

Rep. Corey S. Wilson, R-Augusta, has a military background. Wilson vehemently supports arming rangers because of that service, he said.

“I can’t wrap my mind around [not arming rangers],” Wilson said. “I’ve said this time and time again, I’d never send my Marines into a situation that could potentially kill them without them being properly armed.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2014/01/15/politics/state-house/bill-to-arm-forest-rangers-earns-committee-approval-despite-uncertain-funding/ printed on September 22, 2014