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Sustaining Forests

Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine

Plant Access in the St. John River Watershed

Road in northern Maine, photo by Michelle Baumflek
Every gatherer has a story of access to the plants she harvests.  Like any story, these personal tales contain a range of answers to the following questions:

Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

The questions can be expanded as follows:


Who owns the land where the gatherer wishes to harvest?

Landownership affects access.  Although many gatherers we spoke with gather on their own property, many others do not own land and must depend on access to land owned by other individuals, corporations, or the public in order to harvest plants.  Native Americans report greater concerns about access than any other cultural group in our study.

Increasingly, large landholdings are being divided and sold as smaller woodlots and farms.  New landowners sometimes post their land against trespass, resulting in loss of legal access for gatherers unless they come to an agreement with the new owner.  As a result, some gatherers now fear going onto properties where they harvested in the past.  New landowners may also be less likely than their forebears to grant permission to harvest trees such as brown ash because of changing attitudes about forest management.  As one ash basketmaker noted,

"People are a little more into their land and how it’s going to be treated, not wanting anything to be cut, wanting to preserve that, which is understandable. But it’s hard because we’re trying to preserve a way of life, too."

However, most large forest landowners remain open to gatherers harvesting on their land.

Who is the gatherer and whom does he know?

Several people who gather on others’ land describe the value of long-term relationships with landowners.  Over time, those who made the effort to get to know landowners often have very positive and mutually-beneficial relationships.  For example, landowners might notify gatherers of a good ash tree, or provide equipment to help get a tree out of the woods.  In return, some gatherers give baskets to landowners, stack firewood left over from tree harvests, or reciprocate in other ways.  A gatherer’s reputation as a careful harvester or a master craftsperson may also help get him or her access.  Younger gatherers or those who recently moved to the area report having a more challenging time getting to know landowners or getting access to private property.

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What else is happening on the land where the gatherer wishes to harvest?

Much of the land in the St. John River Watershed is a “working landscape” where landowners use a variety of treatments to meet their goals.  For example, some large industrial timberland owners spray herbicides from the air to suppress broadleaf trees. Herbicides are also used along railroad tracks and power lines.  These toxins and other pollutants concern gatherers.  People worry that some gathering sites are unsafe or the quality of plant material is low.  One gatherer describes the dread and powerlessness she felt as she saw applicator planes pass overhead:

"We would watch those planes go over.  We would see that spray.  We knew where all of the brooks were. They’d stop just when they got to the river and they wouldn’t spray. But the wind was blowing, and the wind would take it over. I knew it was getting into the water."

Many gatherers, especially those who use plants for food, medicine, or spiritual purposes, stop using gathering sites if they are concerned about toxic substances:

"For berries and things like that… we did have a problem that changed things a lot. They sprayed. Once they sprayed, we wouldn’t dare to pick anything."

Because of such spraying practices and the concerns they provoke, several gatherers report that they are very selective about harvest sites.  Some also take further action.  The landowner quoted above voted with her community in Allagash to stop the spraying.

Changing landscapes affect gatherers’ access to plant populations.  One gatherer tells how she used to look for forest burn sites to gather blueberries, and how she always ran into people she knew who were following the same natural signs.  Yet these fresh burn sites are by definition temporary and may not occur in places that are easy to get to. Roads affect access in many ways.  Logging roads can provide easy access to plant gathering sites or open up those places to disturbances that damage populations.  Decommissioning logging roads may decrease access while creating habitat for plants that thrive in forest gaps.

What laws or rules regulate gathering?

Relatively few laws exist that specifically pertain to gathering wild plants.  Laws concerning theft apply to plants and are more likely to be enforced for harvest of trees as compared to other plants.  Laws also regulate the harvest of federal or state endangered species.  Misunderstandings about laws and regulations can set up obstacles for access to plants.  For example, landowners who fear law suits if gatherers get injured on their properties may be apprehensive about allowing harvesting, even though state law shields them from liability.  Confusion also exists about Native Americans’ rights to access land for harvesting.  Many non-Native landowners and managers think Native Americans are allowed special access to land, regardless of property ownership:

"I do believe that the Indian nation people have some rights to ash, and have aboriginal rights on private property to harvest ash for their basket making."

Although this may have been common practice in the past, there is no law that guarantees an indigenous person the right to cut ash trees regardless of ownership.

Fees, permits, and leases sometimes apply to commercially collected products such as balsam fir tips, brown ash trees, and sugar maple sap.  The State of Maine allows harvesting of fir tips and maple sap on state land through a permit and fee process. Permits and fees may vary by region and are arranged on an individual basis. Gatherers interested in obtaining a permit for gathering on state land should contact the Lands Division Regional Manager in their region. Some other large forest landowners also impose rules and fees for plant harvest.  The multiple landowners of North Maine Woods, a gated 2.3 million-acre managed region in Maine’s northwestern corner, allow access but charge a daily use fee for activities including gathering.

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When in the gatherer’s life is she attempting to harvest plants?

It is easier to gather at some stages of life than others.  People tend to gather more when they are young or when their own children are grown.  During the middle years, the demands of full-time work, raising a family, or supporting elderly relatives make gathering a challenge because the person simply does not have enough time.  Suffering a disability at any time or dealing with the effects of aging can also make access to gathering difficult.

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Where are the best gathering sites in relation to the gatherer’s home or to roads?

Distance can be a barrier to access.  Some Mi’kmaq and Maliseet gatherers routinely travel as far as 30-150 miles to collect plants that grow in limited areas. For example, flag root and sweetgrass grow almost exclusively in swamps and estuaries.  With increasing distance to gathering sites, the need for a car, gas, extra time, and money add costs to gathering that may cause gatherers to cut back or change their practices.

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Why have there been changes in access?

Many gatherers report that access is not what it used to be.  In some cases, the reason is straightforward.  For example, changes in agricultural technology and land use specifically affected access to brown ash.  One man recalls that many farmers had good working relationships with Native basketmakers when ash baskets were used for potato harvests – an era that ended in the 1960s as harvests became more mechanized.  He feels that access has suffered as those ties weakened.  Not only do farmers need fewer baskets, but the land may be sold to people unaware of such previously strong relationships.

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How effective is communication about gathering needs, opportunities, and regulations?

Miscommunications or lack of communication between gatherers, landowners, and land managers also create access challenges.  For example, forests that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, including several in the study area, must include local indigenous uses in their management plans.  However, managers of these forests express uncertainty about how to communicate with Native American tribes.  Some report that they have tried but are unsure how to establish more productive relationships:

"In our green certification, one recommendation was to have more involvement with Native Americans. Well, they know we [allow ash harvesting], but I guess we can be more aggressive to some degree, but, [ash is] readily available to them. I’m not sure what else we could do."

One tribal environmental planner explains that the tribe would be very interested in developing gathering relationships with large landowners, but that communication has been limited: in fifteen years on the job, the planner had talked with only two such owners about ash harvesting.

Lack of information causes some gatherers to limit their own gathering.  Some avoid certain places because they are unsure if they have been sprayed with herbicides.  Others are uncertain how to gain access to public land.  In both cases, gatherers do not know where to go for information that would answer their questions.

For stories of gatherers with a variety of perspectives and experiences with issues of access, you may want to read about these people:
Mary Anne Sanipass
Sandi MacDonald
Richard Silliboy

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Last Modified: 05/26/2010