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Should Maine Forest Rangers be Armed? Lawmakers Debate
01/20/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Efforts to arm the state's forest rangers have repeatedly failed in the Legislature due to concerns about the cost of training and equipment. Despite support from the LePage administration, this year's attempt could be doomed to the same fate. A legislative committee is also backing the bill, but has not included any money to pay for it. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Should Maine's Forest Rangers be Armed? Listen

Maine forest rangers are charged primarily with enforcing the state's forest stewardship laws. But the duties, many insist, have changes, as rangers are called upon to provide back-up for game wardens, state police and sheriff's deputies.

Instead of smoldering campfires, rangers today may be the first to encounter a mobile meth lab, or marijuana grow, in the middle of the woods. But unlike most other law enforcement officers, rangers don't carry a weapon - at least for now.

"I think that this committee is being asked to answer a straight-forward policy question, as to whether or not the nature and conditions of the environment that confront rangers every day has changed," said Rep. Mark Dion at a hearing Monday on the issue.

Dion, a Portland Democrat, is co-chair of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, the panel of jurisdiction, as lawmakers take their fifth look in 17 years at arming rangers. This year's effort revisits many of the same arguments as in past years, including the debate over how the rangers' mission might change if they were to be issued sidearms.

And then, there's the problem of how to pay for the weapons, and the training to use them. While the state budget is already in the red, Augusta GOP Rep. Corey Wilson says that shouldn't matter when it comes to public safety.

"We use that as a way, unfortunately, to dodge important issues," Wilson said. "I'm just simply saying that we need to put politics aside, we need to put our differences aside and we need to do what's right."

What's not right, Wilson says, is sending Maine's forest rangers into dangerous situations without a handgun - for the defense of others and themselves. But many of the stakeholders who contribute permit and licensing fees that help fund the Department of Conservation don't support the arming of rangers.

The Maine Forest Products Council, for example, has argued that the rangers' primary mission is to fight fires, and that mission could be pushed aside, as rangers are pulled into law enforcement. State Sen. Gary Plummer, a Windham Republican, says constituents have raised the same questions.

"Who watches the trees?" Plummer said. " If we're going to make forest rangers law enforcement, the role that was traditionally done by forest rangers - is that still going to be done? Are we looking for someone else to do that?"

But another committee member, Rep. Jethro Pease, a Morrill Republican, says there are areas that should be left to the department, not the Legislature.

"That's a function of management, just the same as it always has been in the past, it will always be in the future," Pease said. "And I don't see that that affects us. If their mission has changed, it's because management has allowed it to be changed."

But one lawmaker says it is irresponsible to recommend a major policy change - such as arming rangers - without providing a funding mechanism for the bill. "I just think that that's the wrong way to go about it," said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky.

Gerzofsky, a Brunswick Democrat and committee co-chair says the estimated price tag would range between $142,000 to just over $2 million depending on implementation. If passed by the Legislature, Gerzovsky says the bill would have to compete with dozens of other measures for funding.

But committee member Rep. Rick Long, a Sherman Republican, says he believes the money can be found. "I've talked to people on both sides of the aisle and they believe there's enough support in Appropriations so they'll find the money to fund this," Long says. "How they plan on doing it, I don't have an idea."

Sen. Gerzofsky says that if Gov. Paul LePage and Commissioner of Public Safety John Morris think the bill is such a good idea, they should come up with the money to pay for it.


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