AUGUSTA, Maine — A week after it was overwhelmingly supported, then abruptly tabled pending possible amendments, a bill that would arm and train the state’s forest rangers was approved by the Maine House of Representatives Tuesday and will be sent to the Senate for debate.
On Feb. 25, the House voted 139-7 for LD 297, but shortly after that vote the measure was tabled. Rep. Jeff McCabe (D-Skowhegan), explained at the time that there was some late talk among legislators about adding amendments to the bill.
On Tuesday, the bill was sent to the Senate “under the gavel,” meaning another vote was not taken. The bill was not further amended from the version that was debate a week earlier.
By law, Maine’s forest rangers are not allowed to carry firearms. They are, however, classified as law enforcement officers responsible for protecting the state’s forest resources and ensuring that forestry (and other) laws are upheld. Rangers do carry pepper spray and handcuffs while on duty.
LD 297 seeks to arm and train those rangers, all of whom signed a petition supporting the bill. Opposition to the bill has come primarily from the forest products industry, which fears “mission creep” away from enforcing forestry laws should the rangers begin carrying guns.
As of January, the state had 67 forest rangers, with another seven ranger positions unfilled.
Rangers say that when they’re in the field, they never know what kind of situation they may walk into. They also say that because they’re often operating in remote areas, immediate help from other law enforcement agencies may not be available. In 1989, a Maine forest ranger was shot when responding to a call with a sheriff.
At that time, an effort to arm rangers — ultimately unsuccessful — was mounted in the legislature. All subsequent efforts also failed.
Last spring, the Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety gave LD 297 an ought-to-pass recommendation as the bill was being prepared for a vote. At that point, according to House committee chair Rep. Mark Dion (D-Portland), Gov. Paul LePage’s office asked for a chance to study the issue.
The resulting task force issued its recommendations late last year, offering several options that would cost between $142,000 and $2.1 million to implement. According to debate last week, a new option to arm and train rangers has been offered that would cost just $86,819.
During last week’s floor debate, Dion, who has a law enforcement background, said that people who encounter rangers in the field are not likely to stop and wonder whether the uniformed officer in front of them is a game warden, sheriff’s deputy, or state trooper — all of whom carry guns — or a forest ranger.
“Offenders do not distinguish between uniforms,” Dion said, saying that all uniformed officers are in similar danger on every call. “We can’t assume what the offender knows. Many offenders, when debriefed after an incident, say they thought the uniform in front of them knew everything they had done and what they were going to do.”