AUGUSTA — An issue that’s ricocheted around the State House for nearly two years appears to be on its way to a vote before the Legislature soon.
On Thursday, members on the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee agreed Maine Forest Service rangers should be allowed to carry firearms — much like other law enforcement officers in the state.
But Maine would be just the third state in the Northeast, after New York, and New Hampshire to authorize forest rangers to carry sidearms.
What committee members didn’t fully agree on was how to pay for the additional training and firearms the 74 rangers with the Forest Service, an agency within the Department of Conservation, would need.
The guns and training would cost the state about $180,000 over the state’s two-year budget cycle. Some lawmakers on the committee suggested the training and weapons be paid for with the money that’s not being spent on between five to seven vacant forest ranger positions within the agency.
But other lawmakers questioned the fairness of that and also the wisdom of eliminating those positions to fund firearms for the rest of the force when the state could be facing a range of problems that may seriously threaten the health of the state’s forests in the years ahead.
“We don’t have other departments that squirrel away money so they don’t have to use general fund money,” state Sen. James Boyle, D-Gorham said. “We are passing legislation that has a fiscal note and the fiscal note should fight with other fiscal notes.”
On the radar for Maine’s forest are invasive and destructive insects that are coming from the north and the south. To the north, a new outbreak of spruce budworm in Canada has officials worried it will spread into Maine. To the south the Emerald ash borer appears to be creeping north and the threat of the destructive Asian long-horned beetle arriving in firewood from out-of-state remains a serious concern.
Using the funding from the salaries was a concern for Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton. Black, a farmer and maple syrup producer, said he supports allowing the forest rangers to carry firearms but doesn’t want it to be at the detriment of their primary mission of protecting the state’s forest resources.
“I’m concerned we would take away some of the resources that would help us with invasive species and so forth,” Black said. “My big concern is mission creep and getting away from what we have for real problems in the forest today.”
He said he agreed with Doyle that the bill should move forward but then have to duke it out with other legislation that needs funding when it hits the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.
Several lawmakers also said they want to ensure that if forest rangers are allowed to carry firearms in Maine they are held to the same standards as others within the state’s law enforcement community that are allowed to carry and, when needed, use deadly force.
“If we are going to arm forest rangers, and I’m not saying I have a problem with that, but if I do arm them, I want to make sure we don’t put the state in a bad spot because something happens and opens us up into a lawsuit or they do something wrong and somebody gets injured or hurt on the job or something like this,” Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said.
Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris also delivered a report to the committee Thursday that was developed by a task force he chaired last summer that was set up to research and develop recommendations for arming forest rangers.
Morris said at a minimum, forest rangers needed to participate in a two-week basic law enforcement course provided by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy for part-time or reserve police officers. Morris also said that rangers should participate in a minimum of 64 hours of firearm training at the academy.
The task force report also suggested the state could incrementally train and arm forest rangers to avoid detracting from their primary mission. That would also spread out the cost of training over time.
Morris, former longtime police chief, stopped short of saying the rangers should have an equivalent training to police officers if they were to carry firearms but instead said that was a policy decision that would be up to the Legislature.
But forest rangers who spoke to the committee Thursday said many on the force did have most of the same training as police officers and much of the training they complete is based on the curriculum at the Criminal Justice Academy.
Forest rangers have asked for sidearms because, they say the work they do, has become increasingly dangerous and they are often the only law enforcement officer at hand in some of the most remote parts of the state.
Forest Ranger Jeffrey Currier, who took a day off from work to speak to the committee, also served on the task force over the summer, said those in his agency, “relish training.”
“We want to be the best-trained agency in state government,” Currier said. He said committee members would be pleasantly surprised if they looked closely at the training records of individual rangers. He also said he believed there was a way they could fill the gaps in their training so that it could be equivalent to the training armed police officers in Maine complete.
“We have a reputation of trying to do good work for the people,” Currier said. “From the beginning this initiative was never driven by let’s do the minimum, let’s see what we can get away with.”
Currier said filling the training gaps for existing rangers made sense but he also agreed that going forward all new forest rangers in Maine should attend the full 18-week course for state law enforcement officers offered by the Criminal Justice Academy.
The bill is scheduled to head to the entire House of Representatives on Tuesday, Feb. 25.