By Dave Sherwood
Morning Sentinel news story
Have you heard?
“Traditional use” of land in Maine is under attack: By pending legislation, by political campaigns, special interest groups, land sales, nonprofits and people from “away.”If you’re like most Mainers, you’ve got your own idea of what “traditional use” is and isn’t, and just the thought of losing those rights raises a few hackles.
“It’s a dirty word,” said Gil Gilpatrick, a former Allagash guide and one of the founders of the Maine Wilderness Guides Organization.
Gilpatrick, like so many Maine outdoorspeople, has his own definition of the phrase — but it’s unlikely it matches yours, or your neighbors.
And that’s just the problem.
Sportsmen throughout the state are scrambling to answer the question “What is traditional use?” — at least, where it applies to recreation in the north woods.
With the recent acquisition of entire townships by Roxanne Quimby, who prefers not to allow hunting on her property, and the Katahdin Lake proposal, which could exclude hunters from 6,000 more acres, many hunters believe their “traditional use” of land in Maine is threatened.
On the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Aroostook County residents are wary of proposals to limit access for day-tripping fishermen with outboard motors — a tradition in that region for a half-century or more.
And the recent Plum Creek proposal to develop large tracts of land in the Moosehead region has others wondering where they’ll go next.
“Hunting, fishing, trapping, guiding, canoeing, hiking and wildlife viewing. Those have been traditions in this state forever,” said Skip Trask, a lobbyist for the Maine Trappers Association.
“Let’s face it, trappers explored the state of Maine. They were the first to come here. Hunting and fishing went along with that,” Trask said. He said colonial laws which allowed access to so-called “great ponds” for fish and foul long ago established the rights of hunters, fishermen and trappers to do “their thing” in Maine.
But Trask admits that motorized vehicles muddy the water — in more ways than one. “It’s really a separate issue. They are the new kids on the block. I don’t think they have the same traditional status, but I’d still defend the right to use them,” he said.
“Snowmobiles and ATVs involve some type of intrusion. You have to build a trail, special place to ride them, whereas when you talk about hunting, fishing or trapping, they’re completely unobtrusive. You come and go, with no evidence of your having been there,” said Trask, who joined the Warden Service in 1966, before snowmobiles were in wide use in Maine.
Cathy Johnson, policy maker for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said “unobtrusive” is important — particularly when it comes to the other traditional activities: Hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
“Snowmobile groups tell us all the time that they’re happy to share trails with us, that we should use them anytime. But if I’m going out skiing or hiking, I’m seeking a quiet experience. That experience is different from that of a snowmobiler or ATVer. You just can’t do those together,” she said.
Most everyone agrees that hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, canoeing and timber harvesting are traditional uses of the Maine woods. But add technology to the mix and the disputes begin.
Some argue that certain advances — gas- powered motors, fish finders, even using pre-processed, mass- produced jelly donuts for bear bait — take the “traditional” out of the use.
Bowdoin College Professor Chris Potholm, who has studied outdoor politics in Maine for 40 years, suggests that some technology was always present in the Maine woods.
“Back in the day, there were operating railroads in the north woods, there were steamers going up and down Moosehead Lake. It’s only in the last 30 years that the idea that ‘nature exists for the use of people’s has changed. It’s all in the eye and mind of the beholder. Some would say in a working forest, you have to use an axe, but then came the chainsaw, and skidder. Is it still tradition? Tradition is what we project onto an ever-changing reality,” he said.
George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, agrees.
“Hunters and fishermen have always used the latest technology. Everybody has the best of equipment, everybody wants the new stuff. It’s very much a personal decision as to where you draw the line,” he said.
But some, like Cathy Johnson, wonder where to draw the line.
“How long does it take to establish a tradition?” she asks. “It means different things to different people, in different contexts. When the Penobscot Indian nation uses it, it goes back thousands of years,” she said.
Johnson said it’s easy to forget that activities some consider “traditional” are relative newcomers in Maine. The outboard motor, for instance, was first introduced in 1909. Ski- Doo’s classic yellow-front snowmobile didn’t take off until the mid-1960s. And four-wheel all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, emerged in 1985, after three-wheelers were outlawed in the early 1980s.
“It only takes 24 hours to create a tradition,” said Smith, only half-joking. But he stands by hunting, fishing and trapping as the primary traditional recreational uses in Maine.
Jym St. Pierre of Restore: The North Woods, the group that proposed a North Maine Woods National Park, suggests there is a point where activities like hunting or fishing lose their identity to technology — and perhaps, cease being traditional.
“There’s no bright line to cross, but if you could take a poll, I bet you’d find that most agree that the use of gadgets, can get in the way of the traditional experience, at least in recreation. Take a fish finder or a GPS.
“I don’t say any of these things are wrong, but I think they can detract, and distract, from the experience,” he said.
For most outdoor leaders in the state, the argument over what constitutes “traditional use” is little more than semantics and political smoke.
“I’d prefer to just say what it is I’m talking about. I think using the term traditional use is counterproductive to good policy discussions. It’s a buzz word,” said Johnson.
But it is an argument Smith and others find themselves using more often as the rights of hunters and fishermen are called into question with changing social attitudes and values.
“It’s compelling. It’s hard to tell someone to stop doing something they’ve done for a long time,” said Smith.
Bob Mallard, who owns a fly fishing shop and outfitting service in Madison that caters to fly fishermen, takes offense to that approach.
“It’s self-serving and unfair to try to hide behind the words “traditional use”. What you do should stand on it’s own merits, not behind some smoke and mirror show,” he said.
Mallard’s income is derived directly from customers who come to Maine to enjoy traditional forms of recreation. He said the definition of the words were personal, and therefore, should not be subject to political debate.
“What is traditional use? Anything we need to defend right now.,” he said.
But in a state where land and social values are changing as rapidly as technology, most agree that all outdoor sports need to be more closely monitored.
“There are more and more people wanting to do more things, and the space isn’t getting any bigger. It’s a conversation we need to have,” said Restore’s St. Pierre.