January 15

OUR OPINION: Maine should arm its forest rangers

As law enforcement personnel, they shouldn’t go unprotected into dangerous situations.

Last year, when Gov. Paul LePage established a task force to recommend whether forest rangers should be allowed to carry firearms, we said the state should instead focus on how to make the job safer, by returning the rangers’ focus to forest management and fire suppression.

Now that the task force has returned its findings, that seems all but impossible. Rangers’ duties will continue to include the investigating of timber theft, illegal harvesting, improper burnings and other activities that often involve dangerous people and overlap with other crimes. They also will continue to provide support to other law enforcement agencies.

Those parts of the job rightfully have rangers nervous, enough so that at least 18 rangers testified in favor of the bill that prompted the creation of the task force, with more ready to speak if time and repetition of testimony were not considerations.

The task force ultimately agreed, recommending that the rangers be armed over a period of several years.

The chief consideration now should be how to fund the initiative, a cost the task force pegged at between $142,837 and $2.1 million, depending on the level of training.

The cost likely will be the focus of today’s work session on the bill, L.D. 297, by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Opponents of arming rangers say it would take resources away from land management, and concerns regarding the availability of funding is part of why the bill’s fate is in question.

Lawmakers should not be put off by the $2.1 million figure, which assumes an unnecessary level of training.

Rangers say the cost of firearms and training is closer to $100,000, and that the funds are available. Lt. John Crowley, chief ranger pilot, testified that the initial training could cost as little as $60,000, with recurring annual training at $16,000, and firearms and bulletproof vests could be obtained through the federal government with significant savings.

The cost, he said, could be paid with some of the $150,000 the department was set to receive from the city of New York for help the rangers provided during Hurricane Sandy, or through funds already set aside at the department.

The committee needs to get to the bottom of the discrepancy, and it needs to get a true picture of the funding options. Lawmakers cannot allow imprecise cost estimates to provide political cover for voting down the bill.

Forest rangers investigate crimes. They are called to the scenes of emergencies and asked to check out reports of criminal activity. They usually work alone and often in rural areas, far from help. They are asked to back up police officers and game wardens.

Rangers, in addition to their forest protection duties, do many of the same things as other law enforcement personnel. Yet they are the only ones asked to do them without the protection of a firearm.

The state should remedy the situation as soon as possible. If the rangers’ ideas on costs and funding are realistic, it should be done immediately.

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