Hearing on arming rangers difficult, divisive

Emotions ran high and hot Wednesday on LD 297, a bill that would arm Maine’s forest rangers. In a hearing that lasted five hours, there were raised voices, insults followed by back-handed apologies, questions that shouldn’t have been asked and others that couldn’t be answered.

“It’s one of those issues where you’re on one side or the other and that’s where you’re going to stay,” said Doug Denico, director of the Maine Forest Service (MFS). “It’s a really difficult subject.”

Executive Director Patrick Strauch testifies on LD 297.
Executive Director Patrick Strauch testifies on LD 297.

Opponents and supporters had the same goal – the safety of rangers – but supporters were certain that guns would make rangers safer and opponents were equally certain that guns would put them in more danger, because they would be called into more dangerous situations. Written testimony from 35 people, including 18 forest rangers, is posted online. Only a handful testified in opposition, including MFPC. But it was what people asked, answered and expressed spontaneously that was most compelling. It also was troubling for people who usually work in harmony in the Maine woods to find themselves so divided.

“All my life I’ve had tremendous respect for the foresters and rangers of the Maine Forest Service,” Jim Robbins Sr. of Robbins Lumber, an MFPC Board member, told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “This is a difficult session this afternoon and it pains me to testify in opposition to this bill and make it look like I don’t care about those rangers and those foresters. Believe me, I consider them some of the most professional, wonderful people in the State of Maine and I don’t want to see them get hurt. But I honestly feel that if this bill is passed and they are armed, that they’ll be in more danger than they are now.”

There also was a clear division between those who view forest rangers as firefighters who enforce forest protection laws, and those who see rangers primarily as law enforcement officers – “the people who protect us,” as one committee member put it.

Other bills about arming rangers came before the Legislature in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001, but they were heard in the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, which oversees MFS and is familiar with rangers and their work. In contrast, Criminal Justice has oversight over law enforcement issues and several committee members have law enforcement experience. Some of them were baffled that anyone would object to arming rangers.

Rep. Mark Dion
Rep. Dion

“All rangers want is to stay safe,” Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland and co-chair of the committee, said to SWOAM Director Tom Doak. “I’m having a hard time understanding why there would be resistance to the fact that they would be armed. I think they’re the same person, they’d provide the same service. So help me understand why we’re hung up on the fact that they can’t have a tool to protect themselves and maybe one of us in another agency. They can step up and save our lives, which we would appreciate.”

Doak, a former MFS director,  responded that first there should be “a conversation about the best way to keep rangers safe.” He urged legislators to take a hard look at how the rangers’ job has evolved before deciding that guns are the answer. Until about 20 years ago, the Forest Protection Division consisted of a mix of seasonal and year-around firefighters. It was only after the Forest Practices Act was passed that the division became a full time year-around professional staff with steadily increasing law enforcement responsibilities.

If they are armed, “I think it’s reasonable to expect that they will be involved in more dangerous situations. They will be asked more and more to be involved in those situations,” Doak said.  “I look at the immense job that rangers are charged with – fire control, Forest Practices, shoreland zoning — and this is an enormous job and they are uniquely qualified. They’re unique and that’s more than a full-time job right there.”

Rep. Wilson
Rep. Wilson

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, cross-examined Doak about the Commercial Forestry Excise Tax (CFET). Doak told him that it’s a tax paid by everyone who owns more than 500 acres and that revenues go into the general fund, but suggested that the committee invite an expert to explain the tax in detail.

“I’ll be very direct,” Wilson said. “I was told directly prior to today’s public hearing that the opposition largely would come from those that would essentially stand to lose money in the event that arming forest rangers came at an increased cost, which would then cost essentially large landowners more money in the way of tax. So if you’re not capable of answering that question I would ask for anybody else that is going to testify to please provide information that may be helpful in getting the answer to that question.”

Wilson then glared at the audience as if daring someone to come forward. No one did.

Doak waited a moment, then responded, “I can only say that the people we deal with are not generally involved in paying that tax and my discussion or opposition has nothing to do with cost. That’s not the issue.”

Rep. Tim Marks, D-Pittston, who was a state trooper for 25 years, questioned MFPC Executive Director Patrick Strauch about what rangers should do when people “come to you and expect you to solve their immediate crisis – are you going to stand there and say, ‘Oh, you better call somebody else. We’re not equipped to do that.’”

Strauch answered, “I think rangers are equipped with good communication. That’s their strongest tool – being able to call in other resources. We have a lot of needs – watching over the Forest Practices Act and primarily for forest fire control.”

“Do you have any idea how many game wardens are working right now or how many troopers are working right now in the State of Maine – on duty in uniform right now?” Marks asked.

Strauch responded, “I know it’s not enough. But I would say that’s a different question. Are we talking about creating another law enforcement division?”

doug mug
Doug Denico

It was Denico, though, who was questioned longest and hardest. Dion challenged his concern for forest rangers, saying, “When I was placed in command of men and women, my first duty, my first mission, was to them and their safety. And I’m curious that you began by saying your first duty was to 17 million acres. That’s troubling, all right?”

Denico responded in a voice that shook with emotion. “You’re reading something into something that wasn’t said in the way that you’re interpreting it. My duty – my statutory duty – is to the resource. What my own concerns are you can ask the rangers in this room or anywhere else. I’ve probably spent more time out with the rangers than any other state forester ever has. I’ve broke bread with them from Fort Kent to southern Maine. I don’t think anyone has spent the time with them that I have. I do look out for what they do and for their safety, and I’m convinced – I’m convinced thoroughly – that when they’re armed, they are going to be in more danger then they are now. I’m convinced of that. Absolutely convinced of it.”

Rep.  Wilson responded, “I can see you’re passionate about your positions. But I want to know specifically if you have law enforcement experience yourself, meaning have you been a sworn law enforcement officer now or ever in your life?”

Wilson’s tone was so scornful that he later told Denico, “I didn’t mean to insult you.”

But Denico simply answered, “No.” In fact, no one can remember any MFS director with a law enforcement background. Most, if not all, have been foresters, because protecting forests is the mission of the Maine Forest Service.

A few minutes later, Corey again aggressively questioned Denico. “You said that the Department of Public Safety has made statements to you that they would utilize them (rangers) for law enforcement duties, in a different way than they are utilized now, today. My question is very specific. I want to know who at the Department of Public Safety said that. Are you talking about the commissioner? Who in the Department of Public Safety suggested they would utilize them in a different manner than what their current operational functions are? Can you tell me that please?”

Denico responded, “I think what I would do is have the commissioner of Public Safety here for your work session and people from criminal justice here, rather than you having to take my word. That’s what I would suggest you do.”

At that point Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, co-chair, broke in, defusing the increasingly tense situation by asking Denico if the forest rangers’ core mission is fighting fires. When Denico said that it was, Gerzokfsky said, “And we don’t arm firefighters.”

Gerzofsky also asked Denico, “Do you have a history of rangers being shot?”

Denico told him the story of the most serious injury to a forest ranger that anyone recalls. In 1989, a Washington County deputy asked a ranger to help him locate a man who had requested urgent medical aid. When they pulled into the man’s driveway, he began firing. The deputy radioed for help and backed the cruiser to a safer spot. They stopped traffic, warned neighbors and took up a defensive position behind a building. But as they waited for reinforcements, the man fired from behind them, hitting the ranger, who spent six weeks recovering. Lack of a gun wasn’t an issue; the ranger was holding the deputy’s shotgun when he was shot. State police later stormed the mobile home and arrested the gunman, who got a lengthy sentence for attempted murder. In the past 20 years, according to workers comp records, not one forest ranger has suffered violence-related injuries on the job.

“The only one I know I who was shot was in possession of a shotgun when he was shot. The only one I know of – and he wasn’t really in the line of duty,” Denico said. “He was dragged into it by a deputy sheriff.”

After a few more questions, Gerzofsky turned to Wilson and said, “OK. Rep Wilson did you have a question?”

There was a long pause. “I withdraw my question,” Wilson said.

In the end, Denico stood at the podium for 40 long minutes explaining why the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry opposes arming rangers. He made it clear he didn’t discount rangers concerns about their safety.

“I believe firmly that arming them escalates their risk,” he said. “And I also believe that they believe their feelings. I’d be a fool to say that they don’t have legitimacy in how they feel.”

But Denico also strongly urged everyone, especially legislators to examine the facts. Rangers file “Use of Force” reports when they feel threatened or when force is used in their presence, such as when state police or wardens take a person into custody. Of the 19 incidents reported since 2008, 17 took place in organized townships, where other law enforcement officers were available, and two in unorganized territory. Forest rangers have carried pepper spray for years, but only one ranger has ever used it and that was against a threatening dog in 2008.

“Very few confrontational situations occur and weapons are rarely involved,” Denico said. “In the past five years – and these are the most recent years, I’m not talking about times before bath salts; I’m talking bath salts era – six incidents were reported involving rangers in which either a weapon was involved or a confrontation became physical,” Denico said. “A guy came out on the porch and had a gun,  I don’t know why he had a gun, but he put it down no problem. In another instance a guy had a knife in his pocket. A dog got sprayed with pepper spray. Someone touched someone on the chest with a hand. That’s what we’re dealing with.”

Denico mentioned bath salts because LD 297 supporters did. There were a number of what-if scenarios, such as rangers discovering armed drunks at a bonfire, abusive husbands beating wives, people high on drugs such as bath salts. MFS policies, training and directives are all intended to keep forest rangers out of risky situations. They don’t make arrests or execute search warrants, Denico said. They have the authority, but by policy can use it only in extreme circumstances.

“What we are about is changing behaviors, about educating, about talking to people,” Denico said. “And then after that you do warnings and after that you may have to make a summons. I’ve yet to find where we’ve arrested anybody. The only times I could find was when they were done by either a game warden or a state trooper.”

He also told legislators that MFS is willing to change everything from policies to rangers’ uniforms to make them safer, a sentiment that was also expressed by Strauch and Doak.

“If having arrest power is a problem, we can get rid of that because we are not using it,” Denico said. “I’ve heard several times today that a uniform is kind of like a red flag to a bull. We can change that. We can change the uniforms. We do not have to scream that we are law enforcement in order to be effective.”

But one thing that he hopes will not change is the trust and confidence that forest rangers have earned from the public.

“Most of the forest rangers know these people, they’ve gone to school with them,” Denico said.”If a ranger shows up now, you know if something is wrong you’re going to talk it out. That’s the bottom-line, because there is no gun there. If you show up in a gun, you’ve suddenly entered into a new reality. The bottom-line now is that someone’s got the capability to shoot a gun. That takes the situation from a discussion to a whole other level.”