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Home - Whose Woods? – Fall 2010

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.”

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