Last week George Smith announced his retirement from his work as lobbyist for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to a chorus of grumbling (or perhaps cheers) from many opponents.

It’s no secret many in the outdoors community resented how Smith fought to change fish and hunting laws in Maine during his 18 years at SAM.

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap called Smith “incredibly frustrating to deal with” at times. Others said he was flat-out ruthless.

“Whether he did it consciously or whether it was just the way he was driven, he came across as just mean and cruel in a lot of the things he did,” said Lee Perry, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife from 1997 to 2003.

But it’s worth noting that by being outspoken and overwhelmingly difficult, Smith helped Maine’s special outdoor places.

If nothing else, he drew attention to the need for greater protection and access there.

Believe me, as a reporter who’s interviewed him about outdoor issues for 10 years, I can vouch for his unfriendly manner.

But I guess I enjoy his sort of dislike. And I know the truth.

George Smith wants people to understand. I can hear it in his voice.

He stays on the phone like he has all the time in the world, speaking in analogies that make biological stories so simplistic.

Then when the last question is asked, he’s off the phone quicker than a black bear disappearing through the woods, with barely a goodbye.

But when it comes to Maine’s outdoors, there is no question George Smith knows his stuff about hunting and fishing laws.

Certainly many disliked the way he tried to change them.

In a prepared statement, Roland “Danny” Martin — the current commissioner of the department — only wished Smith well in his next endeavor.

Maybe that says it all.

“Over the years I made life miserable for every fish and wildlife commissioner,” Smith said.

Perry wholeheartedly agreed.

“That is probably about right. He was certainly a force to be reckoned with in the state,” Perry said.

Among other things, Smith is recognized for contributing to the state fishing laws that opened up more waters to year-round fishing, for rallying sportsmen to help defeat the bear hunting referendum and for establishing the Outdoor Heritage Fund grant in 1996.

And he defends his dogged, sometimes relentless approach.

“I feel SAM’s role over the years has been often misunderstood. The folks in the department expected SAM to be a cheerleader supporting all their work. That’s just not what SAM has been,” Smith said.

The truth is, behind closed doors, out of the public eye, Perry had a glimpse of the man behind the lobbyist and liked what he saw.

“He did have the ability when he wasn’t in the spotlight to be able to work with people. I worked with him on the Outdoors Heritage (Fund) board and behind the scenes on issues of funding. He could be a real ally. He wasn’t quite so mean-spirited as he appeared. There was some good in him,” Perry said.

And Jen Gray at Maine Audubon said over the years Smith mellowed and even shared the podium with her at a legislative hearing to provide testimony on a bill related to dairy farms.

“We worked on some issues where we came from different places. I would say that we’ve grown to work together fairly well,” Gray said.

But the great irony is that the one project Smith hopes to work on in retirement is one that would create a new, more reliable source of funding for the department.

Unlike some other states, Maine funds its fish and game department largely with sportsmen’s license fees that pay an enormous chunk of its budget, which was $22.5 million in 2009.

Smith, along with Maine Audubon and The Nature Conservancy, wants to change that and provide a constitutional source of funding.

“I believe that is absolutely the future of the department,” Smith said.

Pretty sure nobody at the department will disagree with Smith on that score.

 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]