A spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry confirmed on Friday that the state’s forest rangers have now been issued ballistic vests, but are still heading into the woods without firearms.
Previously, rangers were prohibited from wearing the vests at all.
Efforts to arm rangers — a proposal backed by those rangers — have failed in the Legislature over the past several years. Rangers are law enforcement officers who specialize in woodland- and timber-related natural resources violations, but they’ve been armed with only pepper spray and handcuffs. This move, prompted by a request by rangers, will provide a layer of security that had not existed.
In 2014, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill that would have armed wardens, saying that he supported providing guns and training, but could not justify the associated cost.
“Forest rangers cannot be armed without the appropriate training, and they cannot be trained without the ability to pay for it,” LePage said in his veto letter.
John Bott, director of special projects and communications for the department, said via email that vests were issued last week.
“I have confirmed that the vests were received and distributed last week before the Memorial Day weekend,” Bott wrote.
Bott provided the Bangor Daily News with the interim policy the department is using to decide when rangers are required to use the vests. Among the policy’s directives: All law enforcement personnel of the Maine Forest Service, including forest rangers and ranger pilots, and fire prevention specialists must wear the vests at all times, except for in certain situations.
Those times when rangers are not required to wear the vests include situations when they are actively engaged in fighting fires, are on firefighting training assignments or when a physician has determined that the ranger has a medical condition that would preclude wearing the vest.
“Legislation was introduced last session to provide ballistic vests,” Bott wrote. “The Maine State Law Enforcement Association made a request on behalf of the Maine Forest Service Rangers for ballistic vests to the commissioner. The commissioner decided to issue the vests.”
Bott said “the legislation died when the department agreed to purchase the ballistic vests with existing funds (from within the Bureau of Forestry).”
The total cost for the vests and accessories was $43,268.
Bott said state fire marshals and Animal Welfare Program field agents had already been issued ballistic vests.
Rangers have said they often have potentially violent interactions while in the field, often deep in the Maine woods. They have said that possessing the same firearms and training of other law enforcement would lead to a more safe work environment.
Some in the DACF and in the timber industry have cited a concern of “mission creep” of rangers away from their forest-protection duties if they were, in fact, armed.
Bott said rangers are well-trained to avoid situations that would require them to use firearms. Forest rangers requested the vests through the MSLEA, according to Bott.
“Forest rangers have an excellent safety track record that has been virtually incident-free with regard to firearms,” Bott wrote. “They are well-trained to avoid potentially dangerous situations and to contact law enforcement if they encounter them.”