Public Access to Privately Owned Land in Maine
Policy in Brief:
James M. Acheson, professor emeritus of anthropology and marine sciences at the University of Maine, argues that the “open land” tradition in Maine has huge economic implications, especially for the state’s tourism industry. However, in recent years there has been a substantial increase in land posting, largely in response to abuses by the public when accessing this resource. Despite the number of different institutions that have arisen to allow continued public access to private land, Acheson suggests that more needs to be done from a policy standpoint if Maine’s tradition of using private land for recreation is to be maintained.
In Maine, landowners have legal title to their land; they are able to get all of the income from farming and forestry activity on that land; and they can sell and pass it on to their heirs. Of course, they have to pay taxes on that land and are liable if they create a hazard that causes someone injury. At the same time, the public uses large amounts of privately owned land as if it were a common property resource owned by everyone.
Many Mainers feel that using the land of others for recreation is one of their traditional rights, and a large percentage feel little obligation to even ask permission when they go on others’ land to hunt or take a nature walk.
When land is posted by property owners, the public feels unfairly deprived of something that should be theirs. When property owners limit access to roads, reduce areas where hunting is allowed, prohibit trucks from going to and from other plots of land being worked by forest product companies, or limit and prevent access from wilderness camps Mainers feel as though their economic, recreational, and traditional rights are violated.
The largest industry in Maine is tourism, and hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, ATV riding, cross-country skiing, camping, hiking, bird watching, and leaf peeping attract tourists who inject hundreds of millions of dollars into Maine’s economy. These activities, in large measure, depend on tourists, guides, and sportspersons accessing privately held property.
Facilitating this type of recreational access, a strong landowner liability law exists in Maine, which protects landowners from suits by people who get hurt on their land while engaging in some form of recreational activity. The law protects landowners whether or not permission to use the land was granted.
From a policy standpoint, Maine has a longstanding tradition of encouraging the public to use private property. For example the Legislative Joint Standing Committee on Fisheries and Wildlife recommended that a landowner relations program be dedicated to:
- Foster public use of private land for hunting and fishing
- Promote high standards of courtesy, respect, and responsibility by hunters and anglers for private land
- Prevent abuse of private lands by hunters and anglers
Indeed, a survey of landowners show that a majority think that landowners have the right to post their property to keep the public off of their land; however, they feel that landowners should not exercise this right unless forced to by very irresponsible behavior. They feel that members of the public should be allowed to use private land for recreation, but that they have no automatic rights to do so.
With land postings on the rise many new institutions are becoming concerned with preserving the environment and conserving Maine’s tradition of accessing private land for recreational purposes. These include:
- Conservation Easements—these aim to bring land under contract to allow continued use by the forest products industry, limit development in the form of resorts or summer homes, and allow continued traditional use such as hunting and fishing.
- The North Maine Woods—is an organization of large owners who allow public use of the land for a fee
- Maine Snowmobile Association—coordinates the efforts of local snowmobile clubs in the maintenance of snowmobile trails built on privately held land with permission of the landowners.
- Land for Maine’s Future—is a state government program that provides funds to purchase sites for public recreation.
- Land Trusts—are bequests from individuals or families and administered by organizations to preserve the land and its resources for specific purposes.
Acheson argues that these policy should be enacted to support and strengthen these types of conservation organizations. Further, he notes that additional game warden enforcement is needed by the state to improve relationships between those who use the land and those who own the land. If the public continues to dump trash on private property, hunt close to homes, and destroy the landscape with ATVs then the rise in posted land will continue. He further suggests that more innovative solutions may become necessary such as a public utility that would own a large amount of land and manage its forests for multiple uses such as sustainable timber harvesting and recreation.
Acheson, James M. 2006. “Public Access to Privately Owned Land in Maine.” Maine Policy Review 15(1): 18-30 (12 pages, 15-minute read)
From MPR‘s Archive:
- Barringer, Richard, Hugh Coxe, Jack Kartez, Catherine J. Reilly, and Jonathan Rubin. 2004. “Land for Maine’s Future Program: Increasing the Return on a Sound Public Investment.” Economic Development. 12.
- Irland, Lloyd C. 2018. “Maine’s Public Estate and Conservation Lands: Brief History and Assessment.” Maine Policy Review 27(2): 11-29.
- Rubin, Jonathan and Charles Morrris. 2001. “Gasoline Consumption Attributable to ATVs in Maine.”
- Vail, David. 2002. “Snowmobiling in Maine: Past Successes, Future Challenges.” Maine Policy Review 11(2): 130-140.
- Hagen, John, Lloyd Irland, and Andrew Whitman. 2005. “Changing Timberland Ownership in the Northern Forest and Implications for Biodiversity.” Forest Conservation Program, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, Brunswick, ME.
- Maine Land Trust Network. 2019. “Expanding Public Access to the Outdoors“
- North Maine Woods. 2019. “History of the North Maine Woods (NMW)“