Forest rangers undeterred by LePage veto of bill that would have armed them

Posted May 06, 2014, at 2:38 p.m.
Last modified May 06, 2014, at 5:20 p.m.
John Crowley
Kevin Bennett | BDN
John Crowley Buy Photo

BANGOR, Maine — Two perceived factors — training and the cost of paying for it — eventually led to the governor’s veto of a bill that would have provided for the arming of the state’s forest rangers, but one of the rangers who worked for the passage of LD 297 said the battle is far from over.

“In the end, I think we were certainly disappointed, but we’ve come a long way,” said John Crowley, chief ranger pilot. “Legislators now have a better idea of what rangers do. We’ll be back next year. We’ve already talked to legislators and we’ll have a bill next year.”

The Legislature failed last week to override Gov. Paul LePage’s veto.

Despite his decision, LePage said he favored arming the rangers. According to the official veto letter submitted to the Legislature, LePage balked at the funding and training components of the measure.

“I fully support arming the forest rangers,” LePage said in the letter. Later, though, he explained why he felt obligated to veto the measure.

“Forest rangers cannot be armed without the appropriate training, and they cannot be trained without the ability to pay for it,” he said.

Forest rangers are considered law enforcement officers but are not allowed to carry firearms or wear ballistic vests. Instead, rangers are equipped with pepper spray and handcuffs.

The bill breezed through both houses of the Maine Legislature before LePage’s veto. In subsequent votes, the Maine House of Representatives voted 131-15 (89.7 percent) to overturn the veto, and the Senate voted 21-14 (60 percent) to do the same. Because both houses did not vote to override the veto by a two-thirds majority, the bill died.

Key opponents of the bill were the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine and the Maine Forest Products Council. During debate on the bill, the most frequent criticisms of the proposal involved funding concerns and a “mission creep” among rangers, meaning rangers might be expected to conduct more run-of-the-mill police work instead of concentrating on protecting the state’s forest resources.

Crowley said he thought the governor’s concerns had been dealt with in the bill and subsequent amendments. Funding would have been provided through money that is in Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry coffers.

“It would be paid for through the [job] vacancies that we have,” Crowley said. “There’s money that was left over. When a position is open, the department still gets those funds.”

As far as training is concerned, requiring an 18-week course for rangers that is identical to the one state police troopers complete makes little sense.

He said the 12-week ranger training program, which includes eight weeks at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and four weeks of ranger-specific training, provides a good base. Adding 64 hours of firearms training would have been sufficient, he said.

Crowley said he’s hopeful that continued public support will turn the tide as he and others support a future bill on the issue. But as the busy seasons approach for Crowley and his fellow rangers, they will be paying little attention to politics.

“Right now we’re in fire season,” Crowley said. “There will be a new Legislature next year, but [already] people have approached us and said, ‘We will do this next year.’”

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