POLL QUESTION

Away with the rangers? After weapon bill veto, LePage plans forest service overhaul

Posted Jan. 16, 2015, at 3:56 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 16, 2015, at 4:59 p.m.

Poll Question

Eight months after vetoing a bill that would have armed Maine forest rangers, Gov. Paul LePage, in his budget proposal, is seeking to overhaul the Maine Forest Service by creating a new class of natural resources law enforcement officers under the Bureau of Forestry and removing the police powers of existing rangers.

The budget plan also would eliminate at least 25 ranger positions, 12 of which are now vacant, which would diminish the existing total force by one-third.

Ed Archer, president of the Maine State Law Enforcement Officers Association, the collective bargaining arm of rank-and-file rangers, said his organization was blindsided by the budget proposal.

“We had no lead in to it, so that concerned us,” Archer said. “We had no idea [the administration was] going in that direction.”

Maine’s forest rangers are responsible for fighting wildfires, investigating forestry violations that include arson and timber theft, and enforcing timber harvesting laws. They also inspect active logging operations.

Rangers are prohibited from carrying weapons while on duty. They are permitted to carry pepper spray and handcuffs. Rangers have said that they often patrol in remote areas and are sometimes threatened by the people they’re investigating.

And those rangers cite the case of their colleague Bill Greaves, who was shot — unarmed — while assisting a sheriff’s deputy back in 1989. Greaves survived and later returned to work as a ranger, but the incident reinforced for the rangers the dangerous nature of their work.

After last year’s veto, rangers vowed to return to the Legislature with a new bill in this session, and legislators have filed four bills related to ranger safety.

But what the LePage budget is putting forth represents a significant reorganization of the Maine Forest Service, by arming a few new officers and changing the job description of existing rangers, all of whom are certified law enforcement officers.

However, Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry spokesman John Bott said those numbers don’t take into account 10 new positions to be created under the budget provision, including six natural resources law enforcement officers and a supervisor.

Walter E. Whitcomb, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said in a statement that the budget “represents an important shift in public resources to provide more comprehensive forestry protection and better meet the wide range of forest management threats. It also addresses safety issues raised last year through a proposal to arm rangers.”

Whitcomb said he participated in budget discussions and is comfortable with the direction his department may be headed.

“I think what we’re causing to happen is an investigation of what we want our rangers to do,” Whitcomb said in an interview. “And I think we’re getting to that point … We want them to be doing more of those firefighter duties, and less of the chasing bad guys.”

Whitcomb said he opposed the bill that would have armed forest rangers, in part because the bill did not require as much training as he thought was necessary. Whitcomb said rangers were resistant to his ideas about which agency would administer the training and what level of training would be adequate.

While neither Archer or Whitcomb say this budget proposal is retribution for the rangers’ failed efforts to get armed during the last legislative session, Whitcomb did say that the presence of rangers in Augusta to lobby for the bill was noticed.

“I don’t think they helped their cause by showing up at the State House as if they didn’t have anything else to do,” Whitcomb said.

Rangers have said their lobbying efforts took place on their days off.

However, a Facebook page called “Maine Forest Rangers Association” — started in early 2014 to apparently organize on behalf of legislation to arm rangers — didn’t hesitate to say the cuts and reorganization were examples of political payback.

“The Governors budget follows through on his promise that if LD 297 got to his desk he would cut us to thirty rangers,” the Jan. 14 post reads. “He has sent layoff letters to 13 rangers stating that their position will be eliminated. The budget has cut all our current ranger and support positions. He has also striped (sic) all rangers of their law enforcement powers.”

There is no official nonprofit organization registered in Maine under the name “Maine Forest Rangers Association.” It is not clear who runs the Facebook page.

Archer said that by decertifying the existing rangers, LePage will be dumping all law enforcement on the new natural resource officers. In 2014, he added, Maine’s forest rangers responded to 12,000 requests for service and conducted 3,500 investigations. If the budget passes as it reads now, all of those requests and investigations would be handled by only the six new officers and their supervisor.

“[Existing rangers] will not be out like they have been, meeting with the public, overseeing these [investigative] operations,” Archer said. “They would respond to fires and deal with environmental aspects of the forest [like insect infestation].”

Whitcomb disputes the numbers provided by Archer.

“I have nothing in our records of [ranger] records that resemble that number,” Whitcomb said, explaining that it’s hard to tell when an incident is responded to in a way that law enforcement certification was necessary. “The information we had shows a very, very different spatial arrangement of their responses.”

Whitcomb said he was referring to a breakdown of incidents that was provided to a task force convened to study the issue of arming rangers.

Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, said the budget item seems to be a reflection of a changing forest landscape.

“All along we’ve been asking, ‘What are the needs of the department?’ and this must be [the administration’s] first stab at that,” Strauch said. “We know the incidence of fires is down. ‘How many people do you need to fight fires?’ is the question.”

The proposal to create a new class of natural resource law enforcement officers is essentially identical to the proposal that the Maine Forest Products Council put forth in an amendment to LD 297 last session, Strauch said.

The Maine Forest Products Council describes itself as the “voice of Maine’s forest economy.” The group lobbies for its membership, which includes forest landowners, forest industry employees, and others.

Strauch, who conceded that his organization has long opposed arming rangers, said new challenges face the Maine Forest Service, including a potentially disastrous battle against an infestation of spruce budworm. Devoting more resources to those kinds of problems are worth considering, he said.

Archer said that notice letters were sent to 13 rangers before the budget was released, letting them know that a provision in the budget, if passed, would result in their dismissal by the end of this year.

“This is a profound change for the [Maine] Forest Service and how they do business, and we can’t make any sense of why they wouldn’t want these [current rangers] being certified officers,” Archer said.

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