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Maine Forest Rangers: Should They be Armed?
02/25/2014   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Lawmakers in the Maine House have given overwhelming initial support to a bill that would allow Maine Forest Service rangers to carry firearms to protect themselves on the job. But the controversial measure is facing a possible amendment that would require rangers to undergo law enforcement training at Maine's Criminal Justice Academy. And as Susan Sharon reports its fate is unclear.

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The question of whether Maine's 74 forest rangers should be permitted to carry guns has been kicking around for two years. Last summer a task force took up the issue and concluded that, as a matter of self-protection on the job, they should.

Rep. Catherine Nadeau, a Democrat from Winslow, is a co-sponsor of the bill. "Forest rangers risk danger every day that they go to work," she said. "It is not uncommon for them to face violent criminals, felons, arsonists or illegal drug dealers and smugglers. Some have been shot at and some have received death threats."

Nadeau points out that the mission of forest rangers is to protect Maine's forest resources, put out forest fires, respond to disasters and emergencies and educate the public about forest management. But, she says, forest rangers are also considered law enforcement.

And, unlike state game wardens or state police, they are not permitted to carry weapons, even though they work alone in remote areas. Republican Rep. Roger Reed, of Carmel, says he worries about rangers checking on camps that have been broken into and ransacked.

"I know that some worry about job creep - that forest rangers will become more engaged with law enforcement than protecting our forests. I don't think this is a legitimate argument," Reed said. "We are not asking that the job description or the mission of the forest rangers in any way be altered. We simply want them to feel a little more secure as they go about doing the business of protecting our forests."

But that's exactly what concerns Patrick Strauch of the Maine Forest Products Council, the association representing Maine's forest products industry. Strauch says arming forest rangers will move them away from their core mission of resource protection into the area of public safety.

"And that debate in the Legislature confirmed our concerns," he says. "These guys and gals are being looked at as backup to law enforcement and that is not their job. And some of them may want to move in that direction, but we need resource protection."

Specifically, Strauch says the Maine Forest Service is facing big challenges from possible insect infestations, like the spruce budworm which is already threatening six million acres in Quebec. The Maine Forest Service will need entomologists and other resources to help combat that threat.

"It's about what are the right priorities for the department, and we think shifting into public safety is kind of a dangerous move," he says. "If we need more state troopers and more wardens we ought to hire them."

During the House debate, only one lawmaker spoke out against the bill to arm forest rangers. Democratic Rep. Paul McGowan, of York, called the idea of arming rangers to make them or the public safer "a lie."

"The lie is that the more we arm people the safer we will be," he said. "The evidence tells us this is not true. The more we have armed people the more gun violence we have in our society."

But lawmakers rejected that argument and passed the bill by a vote of 139-7. The vote was then tabled pending a motion to amend the bill by requiring forest rangers to attend law enforcement training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Lawmakers could take up that motion later this week.


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