A 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.”
Image Description: Whose Woods?