Your opportunity to access unposted private land without permission might be lost

When I was a kid, we hunted all over Winthrop and surrounding towns, never concerned about who owned the lands. I don’t recall ever seeing a “No Trespassing” sign.

Boy, things have changed. Today, I urge hunters, hikers, anglers, and all others who enjoy someone else’s land to get permission, even if the land is not posted. If we don’t do that, I fear that someday we will lose the opportunity to access unposted private land without permission.

We must recognize that hunters are a minority in Maine, and a shrinking minority at that, so we must focus on building alliances with nonhunters, including private landowners, if our favorite outdoor activity is going to survive and flourish.

Knowing this, I was eager to pick up a copy of a book, Trespassing, by John Hanson Mitchell. The book is subtitled, “An Inquiry into the Private Ownership of Land,” and was given by the group, Maine Woodland Owners, to all who donated $200 or more to the group’s annual fundraising appeal.

Mitchell is an impressive guy, including his John Burroughs Award for nature essays. He is also the founder and editor of Sanctuary magazine. His childhood was a lot like mine. “I was born and raised in a town that seemed to have no clear demarcation of property. Kids wandered at large there, setting out after breakfast and ranging through private backyards and gardens and, as in my case, spending hours in a wooded plot of private land we regarded as our own Sherwood Forest.”

Mitchell acknowledges that because of his childhood experiences, he became, as an adult, “a notorious trespasser.” He was “periodically stopped and harangued by local landholders, and occasionally by the police.”

All of that led to this book, “an attempt to better understand” how private land became “forbidden territory.” Well, he certainly does that in this book. I was particularly fascinated as he examined land ownership in other countries. Apparently “control of land has been a source of contention” through history and the world.

The story starts back in the 17th Century, and moves from there to the late 20th Century, focusing on a plot of land where “some thirty generations of Indians, English, and Americans have lived on the site.” There’s a large cast of characters, from “The Green Man: a benign forest-dwelling figure, half animal half man,” to Linda Cantillon, an “employee at the local school cafeteria who halted a million-dollar development project west of the Christian Indian village site.”

I especially liked the way Mitchell focused his story in a particular place. That helped me understand the changes that have occurred over several centuries in land ownership and landowner rights.

You will particularly enjoy chapters like “Should Trees Have Standing?” and “The Intelligence of Salamanders.” But the entire book is interesting and informative, and you will finish with a much better understanding of the concept of land ownership and trespassing.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.