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Forestry - Whose Woods?

Research is bridging differences between Maine forest landowners and outdoor recreationists

by Kristen Andresen

keep out signA father and son are enjoying a leisurely ride on their ATV through the woods near their home in a southern Maine suburb. They know these trails like they know their backyard because they ride them almost every weekend. Have been for years. But this weekend, something is different. In the distance, a sign catches their attention: No Trespassing.

Miles away in a northern township, a couple sets out for a walk on their land. The nearly 200 acres have been in the family for four generations, and hunters and snowmobilers have always been allowed. This day, in a clearing a quarter-mile from the nearest road, the owners are greeted with a pile of household debris: a refrigerator, a television, bags of trash. They know the mess likely came from a few locals who didn’t want to pay dump fees, but this is the third time this has happened and they are fed up. They gate the access road and post the land.

Stories like these are becoming all too common in Maine, a place where private landowners have traditionally — and unconditionally — allowed access to recreational users. Some 94 percent of the state’s land is privately owned, and there’s an entire tourism-based economy built on the assumption land access will continue.

But recreation has become more motorized and property that has been in families for centuries is beginning to change hands. As a result, the state is at a crossroads — one that is rife with the potential for conflict.

That’s where Jessica Leahy comes in. Leahy is trying to bridge the differences between landowners and recreational land users as part of her work with the University of Maine’s new Family Forest Research Unit in the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests, and UMaine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative — a research-to-action program to help Maine meet environmental, economic and “quality of place” issues.

“There can be a lot of head-butting between landowners and recreational users,” says Leahy, an assistant professor of human dimensions of natural resources in the School of Forest Resources, who specializes in research related to recreational access to private forestlands. “The university, through scientific research, can help understand the issues on both sides and find policies that might help landowners benefit in some way and let recreators recreate.”

Jessica Leahy

Jessica Leahy

In Maine, there are more than 120,000 family forest landowners — those who own parcels between 10 acres and 1,000 acres that are at least partially wooded. About 90 percent of them don’t realize they own forestland, according to Leahy. Instead, they simply think of themselves as landowners. But while they may not be harvesting timber off their land, they do have an important role to play in Maine’s forest landscape.

“Combined, they create a great diversity of wildlife habitat,” Leahy says. “They help maintain water quality and they do a lot for tourism.”

But doing a lot for tourism can come with a price. By opening their land to such activities as hunting, fishing, hiking, bird-watching or swimming, landowners may open themselves up to a variety of undesirable situations. According to a survey conducted by graduate student Gretchen Heldmann, whom Leahy advises, some of the top complaints among landowners include litter dumping, tree damage and illegal cutting, vandalism, illegal construction, fires, loss of privacy, loss of personal safety, violation of state game laws, damage to buildings and equipment, and recreational users ignoring signs.

“Landowners aren’t getting any compensation,” Leahy says. “They’re doing it because it’s cultural, it’s tradition in Maine, but there can be burdens.”

Leahy has received support from the Northeastern States Research Cooperative, UMaine’s Center for Tourism Research and Outreach, and the Environmental Funders Network to identify problems and research ways to ease those burdens. She and graduate student Martha Willand have spent months working with the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine (SWOAM), the Maine Forest Service, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, recreational user groups such as ATV Maine and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, and other partners. Next year, their pilot project will put the research into action.

“We’re trying to find an incentive program or policy to get landowners to increase the amount of land available for recreation. It could be monetary or it could include other benefits,” Leahy says.

If illegal dumping turns out to be the biggest issue, the solution may be to allow landowners to dispose of items without having to pay for their removal — an arrangement that many transfer stations and landowners have already informally established. Though landowners would love to be paid for opening their property to recreational use, none of Maine’s outdoor agencies has the budget to do so, Leahy says. But the grant-funded pilot program could include a mitigation fund to help landowners deal with dumping, vandalism or environmental degradation.

Another solution could be as simple as creating an alternative to traditional “No Trespassing” signs, which often aren’t specific enough to state a landowner’s true preferences. For a hunting family, it may be that they want exclusive access to their land during the first part of the deer season, but they don’t mind if someone hunts there later on. Some landowners may be OK with snowmobiles but not ATVs; others may be fine with bow hunting but not guns. The problem is, it’s difficult to convey that with current signage, so they may just post the land.

In some instances, making the effort to talk to a landowner whose land is posted could go a long way. But while an “ask-first” ethic is standard in many states, it goes against Maine tradition. But as ownership changes, promoting an ask-first ethic might be necessary to avoid conflict.

According to SWOAM Executive Director Tom Doak, 45 percent of private land in Maine is owned by people 65 and older, and he expects to see a lot of turnover in the next several years — including purchases by people who live in other states.

“The new landowner has a very different view of land access than the traditional owner, and we need to be prepared for that,” Doak says.

Part of that preparation will be addressed in Leahy’s pilot program, but she’s also researching the gaps between public policy and the preferences of landowners and recreational users.

“There are a lot of anecdotal solutions out there, but it hasn’t worked very well that way,” Doak says. “In order to see what would work in terms of policy, let’s find some evidence to show what landowners want. Let’s back it up. We’re already finding interesting disconnects between what Jessica’s finding and what the people who are running (state) programs say landowners need.”

signsOne of the biggest misconceptions that has emerged from their research is that out-of-state landowners are more likely to post their land. In fact, just the opposite is true.

“People from away don’t always come up here in the fall, so they don’t see the hunters on their land,” Leahy says. “There’s this idea that we’ve got new landowners coming in and buying off the land and shutting down access, but that’s not the case. It’s the Mainers.”

Another misconception is that ATV riders cause more damage than other recreational users. Leahy found that littering, tree damage and gate damage topped the list of complaints.

“Despite everyone wanting to blame ATV riders, it was hunter behavior that was more severe,” Leahy says.

She attributes part of this to a shift in ATV laws in 2004–05 that increased penalties. But one rule-breaker who causes a landowner to shut down access to his or her land can ruin it for a whole group of rule-followers — especially when Maine’s extensive network of ATV trails is heavily dependent on the cooperation of private landowners.

To address that divide, Leahy and graduate student Marilynne Mann conducted extensive research with ATV riders. Many talked about riding as a family activity that was accessible to everyone, despite age or physical ability. Some saw it as a way to get out into nature in a way they normally wouldn’t.

“We didn’t see it as a family cohesion kind of thing,” Leahy says. “And certain ATV clubs don’t frame what they do as a family activity, but communities and landowners may be more supportive if they understand that aspect.”

A greater understanding by stakeholders is what Leahy’s work is all about. According to Doak and others, research like this that goes beyond traditional forest resource work and gets to the relationships and traditions behind the issues is more important than ever.

“This is a great role for the university because we’re doing conflict resolution as part of the research,” Leahy says.

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