By George Smith

           Folks who have been picking fiddleheads or mushrooms lately need to know that they are required by law to get the landowner’s permission. I’m sure this is a surprise to many of them.

     Sen. Tom Saviello and I collaborated on legislation this session to require foragers to get permission from private landowners, eventually focusing on applying that requirement only to those picking commercial crops. At the public hearing on LD 128, all the major groups representing landowners, including Maine Woodland Owners, testified for the bill, while those who feel entitled to forage on private land testified against it. But some great research by legislative staff later discovered that this is already the law.

     I’ve spent much of my life advocating for more respect for private landowners and better relationships between those of us who recreate on private land and the owners of that land. We’ve made a lot of progress, but still have constant complaints and problems. When I was at the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), we even had thank-you kits that members could purchase to give to landowners who allowed them to use their land.

     It’s very irritating to find someone has grabbed the fiddleheads or mushrooms off my woodlot before I get to them. And clearly, anyone on my land to commercially harvest something ought to be required to have my permission.

     While the Legislature considered the bill, I heard from lots of landowners upset with foragers. My friend Tim Marks was even featured in a Wall Street Journal news story. He picks and sells fiddleheads on his property, which is posted, and foragers sneak in at night to steal his crops.

     Senator Saviello and I were trashed by some people. They seem to think they’re entitled to anything on privately owned land.

     One guy who attacked us said he enjoyed taking his two young sons around town, gathering fiddleheads and other crops. He saw no reason to find out who owned the land or to get permission. What a terrible lesson he’s taught his children!

     A staff member in the Attorney General’s office weighed in on foraging on public lands. We were informed that it’s a Class E crime to remove anything natural from public lands “except as authorized by the Bureau or allowed by laws and rules relating to hunting, fishing, and trapping.” The good news is that a policy allows foraging on public lands. But you can’t forage in state parks.

     We were all surprised to discover that foraging is already illegal without landowner permission. Title 14, Part 7, Chapter 739, Subchapter 2: Trespass, says: “Without permission of the owner a person may not cut down, destroy, damage or carry away any forest products, ornamental or fruit tree, agricultural produce, stones, ore, goods or property of any kind from land not that person’s own.”

     Later on, you’ll find a definition of “substantive offenses” including “Property – means anything of value, including but not limited to real estate and things growing thereon, affixed to or found therein.” Yes, it says “things growing thereon.” The penalties are severe. Another section defines theft as obtaining control over the property of another with intent to deprive the other person of the property. Yup. That property could be fiddleheads or mushrooms.

     Some sportsmen suggested our bill would apply to hunters if they nibbled a few blackberries while hunting. SAM also objected, and published columns in various newspapers and sporting magazines raising the alarm about this issue.

     Boy, are they going to be surprised to learn that they’re already in big trouble if they do this. The theft law specifies a person with a dangerous weapon at the time of the offense is guilty of a Class C felony, with fines up to $10,000.

     Just as my advice has always been to ask permission before you hunt or fish on someone’s property, I’d include a new recommendation to ask permission if you intend to nibble, or harvest a bunch of fiddleheads or mushrooms.

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