Maine Senate OKs bill to arm rangers

Posted March 18, 2014, at 3:52 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would arm the state’s forest rangers, but not before defeating a competing measure that sought to scale back that effort.

The Senate voted 24-11 in favor of an amendment to LD 297, which calls for the training of forest rangers so that they may be armed. That vote came after discussion on another amendment, which sought to arm just nine of the state’s rangers — one in each district — was indefinitely postponed by an 18-17 margin. Those armed rangers would have been classified under a new category, as “conservation officers.”

The bill will now head to Gov. Paul R. LePage’s desk. A call to the governor’s office for comment was not immediately returned.

Sen. David Dutremble, D-Biddeford, said that training and arming just a few rangers made little sense.

“Why would we not want all rangers [to have] the ability to protect themselves and their ability to go home safely at night?” Dutremble asked.

Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said he had informally polled his constituents twice, including once on Facebook.

“The vast majority of people in Maine, when asked, have said that they want forest rangers armed,” Plummer said. “Not nine conservation officers. [All] forest rangers.”

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, was in favor of the amendment, and stated his opposition to the bill as it ended up. Gerzofsky said he wanted to make sure that rangers are properly trained if they are to be armed.

“When you put a gun on someone’s hip — not a uniform, a gun — you create a target,” Gerzofsky said.

“If you’re going to have them act like a cop, train them like a cop,” he said.

Maine’s forest rangers protect the timber resources of the state, fight wildfires and often patrol far-flung rural areas. They are considered law enforcement officers, but have been barred by law from carrying firearms while on duty. Rangers do carry pepper spray and handcuffs.

Repeated efforts to arm rangers over the years have failed, and the powerful forest products industry has been the largest opponent of LD 297, citing potential “mission creep” by rangers.

Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, introduced the amendment that was eventually quashed, saying it had been supported by one of those industry groups, the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine.

LD 297 was initiated last year, but tabled when LePage convened a task force to study the issue. It passed overwhelmingly in the House, by a 1389-7 vote.

That version of the bill reduced the potential cost of training and arming rangers substantially. Originally, legislators were considering options that would cost between $142,000 and $2.1 million to implement. The amendment that will go before LePage has a price tag of just $86,819.

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