Understanding public access to private land in Maine

Hi, neighbor! Maine has a lot of great traditions, but there’s a very special one – unique in our nation – that binds us all together into one big community. Maine landowners have traditionally allowed the public to use their properties for recreational activities, while in other states access to private land is often severely restricted.

This tradition is especially important because Maine is 89 percent forested – the nation’s largest percentage – including the largest contiguous block of undeveloped forestland east of the Mississippi. Of Maine’s 17.6 million forested acres, 15.9 million acres are private commercial forestland. So if you love the outdoors, you’ve probably hiked, biked, fished, hunted, ridden a snowmobile or ATV, or just enjoyed the beautiful scenery in our working forests.

North Maine Woods photo by John Hurteau

The Council’s report — Understanding public access to private working forests in Maine — is designed to tell you about the variety of ways that landowners not only try to be neighborly, but also to be good stewards of our forests. You might know Maine’s forest products industry has an $8.5 billion economic impact. You or a family member may even be one of more than 33,000 Mainers who work directly or indirectly in our industry. But some information here still may be a surprise. For example, did you know Maine has about 4 millions of acres of conserved lands? That’s more acres than Yellowstone (2,219,791) and Everglades (1,507,850) national parks combined.

We also want to reach out to our neighbors about some concerns. Recently, we’ve noticed some disturbing themes in the media, in public comments on land issues, and even at the Maine Legislature. People are speaking and writing about our forestlands as if they owned them. They are saying “our access roads,” and “these are not just roads for logging trucks to use.” Some refer to working forests as “pristine wilderness.” Some complain about the sights and sounds of our people doing their jobs and some even insist, “the land is our heritage, and it should belong to all Maine residents.”

Such comments show a serious misunderstanding of the nature of a working forest and the tradition of public access. So we just want to set the record straight.

Although landowners have traditionally allowed public access, the type and extent of recreational use allowed is at the discretion of the landowner. Uses must be safe and compatible with timber harvesting. Landowners make access decisions based on their own policies and activities, the land’s location, and the history of public behavior on their property. Compatible uses might range from none, to non-motorized, to unrestricted.

Logging roads and bridges are private infrastructure, paid for and maintained by landowners to facilitate the movement of forest products to mills. Roads are built and maintained for timber harvesting and it costs a lot of money to keep them ready for logging trucks. Recreational use of these roads is a secondary benefit, not a design purpose. At the very least, anyone using a logging road should understand that logging trucks have the right of way.

Our fundamental concern is that the rights of private landowners not be limited in order to fulfill the desires or meet the demands of recreational visitors seeking a “wilderness experience.” It is wrong to impose a visual and land use regime on the working forest landscape, because that would limit landowners’ opportunities and their willingness to allow public access.

Fortunately, many recreational users do understand that public use of private land is a privilege and not a right, so they are working more closely with landowners. They recognize and respect the sights and sounds of sustainable forest management. They also understand the forest products industry is crucial to our state’s economy.

Landowners also recognize the importance to our economy and quality of life of keeping private land open for public recreational use. With 90 percent of Maine’s forestland in private hands, it would be a small world for all if we could only hike, hunt, ride recreational vehicles, take photos or watch wildlife on our own property.

Even though growing and harvesting timber is the primary objective on these forestlands, landowners strongly support many other compatible uses, including protecting wildlife habitat, allowing recreation and encouraging renewable energy. We hope those who enjoy recreational access to working forests will work with us to make sure it can be preserved.