LePage Should Not Get Votes of Maine Sportsmen or SAM’s endorsement

Governor Paul LePage does not deserve a good grade from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, nor should he get the group’s valuable endorsement for his reelection campaign. And if you are a Maine sportsman who plans to vote for the Governor, you really ought to take a closer look at his record and performance.

As SAM’s Board of Directors approaches its interviews with the three candidates for governor, the group faces a major challenge in figuring out how to deal with the incumbent, who broke key promises that he made to the organization in 2010.

As SAM’s executive director at the time, I prepared the candidate survey and spent a couple of hours with Paul LePage and his campaign manager, John Norris, first in their office and later in mine, going over the survey in detail and answering LePage’s questions. He understood what he was promising. And I believed him.

But not anymore, nor should SAM. There’s no way the organization can give the Governor a good grade, based on his answers on the new 2014 candidate survey, knowing that he cannot be counted on to stand by his answers and keep his promises. Nor do I see how the SAM Board could give the Governor its endorsement for re-election, because of his broken promises and lack of any significant achievements on outdoor issues.

SAM and Me

I have given this column a lot of thought, because I have been reluctant, since leaving my job at SAM at the end of 2010, to write about the organization or offer advice publicly to the executive director and Board of Directors. But I’ve been working for and supporting SAM for 36 years, most of my adult life, and this is a very important issue. Dr. Alonzo Garcelon and SAM’s first Executive Director Tieche Shelton recruited me into SAM in 1978, and Doc got me elected to the board soon after that. I even served as President of the organization in the early 1980s.

In 1992, when SAM hit rock bottom, nearly bankrupt, facing a raft of problems both internally and externally, and suffering a staggering 75 percent decline in membership, a group of former staff and board members, including me, got together to shake things up and get SAM back on track. The Board eventually hired me, on a temporary basis, to serve as executive director, to right the sinking ship, and I enjoyed the job so much that I stayed – much to my own surprise – for 18 years. So I write today’s column reluctantly. I hope the SAM staff and board considers this to be good advice.

SAM Survey

During my tenure at SAM, we used the candidate survey responses to build support for our legislative agenda the following year. And we held legislators and governors to their promises. I don’t think I ever met with Governor Angus King when he didn’t have his SAM survey on his desk. He knew I was going to remind him of his promises!

And we did the same thing with legislators. One session a Democratic House Leader told me he would not be voting for an important SAM bill. I reminded him that he’d answered the SAM survey question on that issue with a “Yes.” He insisted he’d answered “Maybe.” I returned to the SAM office, got out his survey, took it back to the Capitol, and showed him his Yes answer on that question. And he voted for the bill.

The survey responses are important and elected officials should be held to their promises. If they are not, then the entire process is useless.

Broken Promises

Governor LePage’s biggest broken promise was to fund 20 percent of the budget of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife with General Fund money collected from all taxpayers. That would be a simple recognition that the agency does a lot of work for the general public. Game wardens, for example, spend about half their time on police – not wildlife – work. And half of all the revenue DIF&W makes from its sale of licenses, permits, and more to sportsmen, goes to the Warden Service.

Think about that. Our license and permit fees could be cut in half if the public paid its fair share of the agency’s budget.

Candidate Paul LePage even promised to veto any budget that didn’t include that 20 percent level of public funding. But he never submitted a budget that included public funding for DIF&W – at any level. That’s a pretty big broken promise!

And that is not the only promise he broke. One of his broken promises that particularly disappointed me was this one. The question posed to him was: “A professional outside assessment of DIF&W in 2004 issued a series of recommendations, most of which have not been implemented. Among dozens of recommendations were a call to create a culture of customer service, increase public involvement, expand information, education, and marketing services, and establish performance reviews that hold regional staff accountable for implementation of goals and policies. Would you support implementation of these recommendations?

The Governor answered “Yes.” But he did none of this. Nada. Nothing.

That 2004 assessment was ordered up by the legislature, in response to a SAM bill that I submitted on behalf of the organization. I raised the money to provide a match for a $50,000 grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund that paid for the assessment, conducted by The Management Assistance Team of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. It was exceptional in its findings and its recommendations.

I’ve been really disappointed with the lack of support for and attention to DIF&W’s Information and Education Division in this Administration. Let me ask you: do you get much information from the department? I don’t! Even their monthly newsletter was cut to a quarterly and then just disappeared.

Governor LePage also agreed that landowners should be allowed to hunt on Sundays on their own land, but did nothing to initiate or authorize that. He said he would support allowing nonresidents to hunt with residents on the first day of the fall firearms seasons on deer. Didn’t get that done either.

Even when he did try to fulfill his promises to SAM, the Governor fell short. He launched the Maine Game Plan for Deer by appearing at a press conference, but we didn’t hear from him again on that issue. The plan was supposed to rebuild the state’s deer herd, but has accomplished very little. Despite the fact the legislature appropriated $50,000 one year and $100,000 the next to reduce coyote predation on deer when they are in their wintering yards, the Governor failed to spend much of the money. And when he did, DIF&W paid more than $200 for each dead coyote, an unsustainable level of spending that questions the very basis of our argument that limiting predation from coyotes can help rebuild the herd.

Landowner Issues

Governor LePage did follow-up on one of his SAM survey answers. The question was “To help rebuild northern Maine’s deer herd would you support legislation that strengthens the ability of the Land Use Regulation Commission to protect deer wintering areas?” SAM was hoping for a Yes answer. The Governor answered No. And he worked to dismantle LURC and reduce its authority.

The Governor stood staunchly on the side of large private landowners in his SAM survey, and has been consistent on that throughout his 4-year tenure. “I support private ownership over public ownership of natural resources,” he wrote. “Large landowners did a far more efficient job managing Maine’s resources than the State is currently doing.”

“I believe current laws and rules are too restrictive and adversarial to good private stewardship of sustainable resources,” wrote LePage. And he has certainly governed that way.

DIF&W’s landowner relations program has also been a low priority for the governor. The landowner relations position at DIF&W was left vacant for a year, and then moved recently to the Maine Warden Service as a part-time position.

This is another major disappointment for me and many others who worked to establish a high-level landowner relations position in the DIF&W Commissioner’s office and create a comprehensive and effect landowner relations program. Tom Doak, executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, recently wrote a scathing criticism of the state agencies and governor for its failures on landowner relations.

“Given the importance of access to private land, you’d think it would be easy to get enthusiasm, support, funding, and action to support landowners. Well, you couldn’t be more wrong. Efforts to create effective, ongoing landowner relations have had several different iterations, all of which have ended in failure. Meanwhile, landowners report increasing misuse of their land, and land users report more and more posted land,” reported Doak.

His column in SWOAM’s monthly newsletter included an excellent presentation of the sad history of this issue, concluding, “Unfortunately the program has floundered under IF&W with few, if any, accomplishments.”

Fisheries

One SAM survey question in 2010 asked, “Should DIF&W’s fisheries staff focus on habitat protection and enhancement, to create self-sustainable fisheries, rather than on hatcheries and stocked fish?” LePage answered yes and added, “Frankly private hatcheries and habitat protection and enforcement will get us there quicker.” He also reported that he would support privatization of DIF&W’s fish hatcheries.

He hasn’t moved in the direction of shifting the fisheries division toward habitat protection and enhancement, but I guess we should be relieved that he hasn’t shut down any hatcheries to suit his preference for private hatcheries.

During my 18 years as SAM’s executive director, I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the outstanding work of the organization’s Fisheries Improvement Committee (FIC). In fact, I am still a member of that committee.

Over a period of years, SAM’s FIC created a comprehensive Maine Fishing Initiative. In the 2010 candidate survey, SAM asked each candidate if he would endorse the initiative’s goals and principles, and allow SAM to use his name publicly as an endorser of the initiative. Candidate LePage answered “Yes” on both questions.

The goals of the initiative are to: Create great fishing statewide; Double fishing license sales; and Triple the economic contribution of recreational fishing.

The initiative’s principles are: Recognize the quality of fishing experiences in Maine and protect that quality; Make it easy to fish; Maximize fishing opportunity; Manage for big fish; Maximize the economic value of fish and fishing; Make native and wild fisheries the highest priority for sustainable management; Secure appropriate access to all Maine lakes, ponds, rivers and streams; and Establish accountability for fisheries managers, decisions, and policies.

I sure hope the SAM Board asks the Governor for a report on what actions he took to achieve the goals and initiatives of the Maine Fishing Initiative. It’ll be a very short report!

I know there are many exceptionally dedicated and professional people at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife who want to, and could have, done a much better job of achieving these goals and others, if they’d had a governor who cared about these things – a governor who kept his promises to SAM.

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, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.