EAST MACHIAS, Maine — Jacob van de Sande won’t give you the GPS coordinates of his favorite hunting spot, but he will give you a hint: It’s on a piece of Washington County-conserved land that many people assume is off-limits to hunting.
That leaves van de Sande in a tough spot. He’s a land protection project manager for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and a couple of his goals are to convince more people to utilize conserved land, and to consider becoming part of a growing land conservation movement.
So while he doesn’t necessarily want dozens of other hunters joining him during deer season each November, he does want more hunters to know that there are thousands of acres that they may never have considered hunting that are available to hunt, as well as to hike, fish and mountain bike.
“I’ll run into people and talk about the work I do and talk about a particular piece of land and say we’re conserving it. And their response is, ‘Oh, that’s too bad, because I like to go there, and we go hunting,’” van de Sande said. “And that’s one of the reasons we’re conserving the land.”
Van de Sande said that in Washington County alone, about 25 percent of the land is under some form of conservation status.
Representatives of other land trusts and conservancy groups agree: There’s a lot more land that’s open to all kinds of recreational activities than most people think. At a recent meeting, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust was joined by reps from the Downeast Coastal Conservancy and the Downeast Salmon Federation — all major landholders in the Washington County region — all of whom said they’ve come to realize that many people misunderstand what a piece of conserved land really is.
“[People hear ‘conserved’ and assume] it’s just there to go for a stroll. But in fact, most of our land, and I think that’s true of all the other organizations at the table, are open to traditional uses — hunting and fishing,” van de Sande said.
Van de Sande said the Maine Coast Heritage Trust has parcels of land up to 2,400 acres, and that on land where hunting is allowed, all the other hunting state laws are in play — you’ve got to get permission to erect a tree stand or put up a trail camera, for instance.
And on MCHT lands, signs are posted advising people that hunting is allowed, and that wearing hunter orange during hunting season is recommended.
Melissa Lee, a regional steward for the MCHT, said she often hears from non-hunters who also have false assumptions.
“I think a lot of people who come to hike on conservation land tend to think that hunting is not allowed,” she said.
Therefore, those signs can help inform two different user groups. They inform hikers that hunters may be present, and remind hunters that there’s a trail network where they’re apt to encounter hikers.
Jon Southern is the executive director of the Downeast Coastal Conservancy, as well as being a regional coordinator of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s hunter safety programs in Washington and Hancock counties. Those dual roles have allowed him to help fledgling hunters better understand where they might find land they can hunt.
“I interface with several thousand new hunters every year. And overwhelmingly, when I talk about my role in the Land Trust world, the response back is, ‘We didn’t realize we could hunt conservation lands,’” Southern said.
And Southern, who moved to the U.S. from England in 2001, said allowing hunting on conserved lands makes good scientific sense as well.
“We recognize that that hunting is a necessary wildlife management tool in the North American wildlife management model,” he said. “So it makes every sense with many of our properties, in order to maintain a healthy habitat and keep carrying capacities at a healthy level, hunting is a necessary tool.”
Finding places to hunt is becoming much more difficult, Southern said.
“One thing that I’ve encountered in my [DIF&W] role is the huge amounts of land access that we’re losing in Maine right now,” he said. “We’re losing public access to land at an all time record, rate. Some people have argued it’s up to 9,000 acres a week of access that’s being lost right now.”
Some of that land is posted when it changes hands from large land owners to smaller landowners, and some is posted by those who have grown tired of others abusing their property. Others move to Maine and assume that allowing others to access their land presents a liability issue, when Maine has liability laws that are very protective of landowners, Southern said.
Along the road to one conserved parcel in Cutler, “No hunting” signs were posted along the road all the way up to the property line where MCHT lands began, and hunting is allowed.
Kyle Winslow, a site stewardship director for the Downeast Coastal Conservancy said that when people do find out that a piece of conserved land is open to hunting and decide to hunt there, they often become great stewards themselves.
“They’re happy to be able to go out and use those properties. And so oftentimes, they’ll offer their volunteer help to maintain trails or monitor the property or that kind of thing,” he said.
Dwayne Shaw, the executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, said his organization holds about 4,000 acres of conserved land. And he said that it has become increasingly important to encourage people to take advantage of the access opportunities that abound in the region.
“In Washington County, we’re at where we’re thinking about how do we get more people out there on the land? How do we promote the fact that we want people hunting?” he said. “It’s not just allowed, it’s a heritage, it’s a good outdoor activity. It’s good terms of self provisioning food, for families.”