One of the best things I did during my 18 years as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine was to organize an annual Sportsman’s Congress, bringing together leaders of the groups representing sportsmen, environmentalists, and landowners, for a day-long examination of key issues coming up in the next twelve months.
I stumbled onto a news report on one of these events, conducted during Governor John Baldacci’s time in Augusta. Here it is. It’s sometimes a good thing to look back. You will note that we’re still fighting many of the same issues.
Gov. Baldacci was on page seven of his eight-page speech, when he pledged allegiance to the Maine Sportsman’s Holy Grail. “And I want you to know,” Baldacci said Friday, “I think it’s time to provide the department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife with a more permanent and predictable source of on-going funding that does not rely solely on hunters and fishermen to be the source of the department’s revenue.”
He’d already promised more general fund revenues for the natural resources agencies, plus a lot of other neat stuff. But this was the happy-days-are-here-again promise. In other words, a chicken in every sportsman’s pot followed by Mom’s apple pie with a big scoop of ice cream.
It was one of those political moments that invite enthusiastic applause, but no applause came. In fact, after a warm welcome, the crowd had not applauded anywhere in the governor’s speech. Not out of ill will, I think, but because it was a hard speech to follow, jumping around as it did between accomplishments and promises.
So George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance and therefore the host of the event, began to clap very loudly and very deliberately. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Until finally the crowd got the idea and joined in politely.
Since 1995, the Sportsman’s Congress has brought together the activists in Maine’s outdoor community for what’s traditionally a warm-up for the legislative session. You can count on hearing from the governor (first Angus King and now John Baldacci) and the commissioners of Conservation and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and their staffs about hunting, fishing and whatever other issues are topical.
The audience this year was filled with legislators, leaders of outdoor groups and a sprinkling of reporters. And the most commonly heard word was “initiative.” There are lots and lots of initiatives out there, some of which will make no difference in the outdoor world as we know it and some that could actually change things. The trick, of course, is figuring out which is which. But if you care about the Maine outdoors, the Congress is great place to sample a smorgasbord of ideas while gathering a good chunk of gossip.
There are certain articles of faith, however, that must be observed. Whatever folks believe in their hearts (or will agree to at budget-crunch time), it’s a pretty sure bet that nearly every chair at the Congress will be filled with someone who:
- Thinks more general-fund revenues are needed for IFW
- Wants to see so-called non-consumptive users (hikers, canoeists, etc.) pay something for state services.
- Is alarmed at the increase in posted land.
- Believes landowners deserve something – but what? – for their generosity in allowing the public to recreate on private land.
These are basic tenets that the outdoor faithful hear about so often that sometimes, as during the governor’s speech, they don’t hear them at all. So rather than report the usual rhetoric, I’ll just fast-forward directly to what struck me interesting, unusual or different at the Sportsman’s Congress.
- The Location: For 11 years, the Congress has been held at the Elks Club in Augusta, but this year it was moved to the conference facility at Maple Hill Farm in Hallowell. Definitely an improvement with better acoustics, a better lunch and more comfortable chairs. However, it was harder to hobnob – my favorite part – because you couldn’t talk at the back of the room while keeping an eye and ear on the proceedings. But many might consider that a good thing, since we hobnobbers made so much racket in earlier years that people could barely hear the speakers. Separate, smaller rooms were provided for hobnobbing, but you were forced to choose between hearing the program and hearing all the things you can learn at the Congress that are not on the program.
- The Crowd: After 10 years of opening the Congress to the public, SAM went to an invitation-only format. The most avid activists among SAM’s members were still well represented, but Smith wanted to squeeze in more outdoor leaders (for maximum political impact) while streamlining the event. So invitations went out to leaders of sporting groups, conservationists, landowner groups (large and small), legislators, media, and, of course, key staff members from state agencies. There were about 130 people instead of the usual 200 or so, but it really didn’t feel very different.
- The Format: Everything moved much faster than usual. Smith had asked presenters to limit their speeches to about five minutes (“If you keep it interesting,” he joked.) and most of them took him very seriously. Some kept glancing at him nervously – as if worried he would gong them – and even Gov. Baldacci’s speech came in at eight pages (when transcribed), down from 10 pages in 2005. Not everybody hit the five-minute mark, of course, but remarks were noticeably briefer than in previous sessions and most participants seemed to consider that an improvement. I, for one, had been complaining to Smith for the past few years about the way people were, as I diplomatically put it, “droning on and on.” Another change for the better was in recent years the IFW staff had dominated the Congress more and more, mostly by putting Smith on the defensive — complaining that he had been “unfair” to them or “too critical” of them. I was glad to see him rein them in, because I think SAM’s role is to be a watchdog, not a lapdog, and that the Congress should focus on the concerns of sportsmen, not IFW. But at any rate, IFW’s staff still had plenty to say this year, but with a lot less droning. That left more time to hear from other people and about other issues.
- The Timing: It started at 9 a.m. and ended around 2 p.m., only about 30 minutes later than planned. That was great for folks like me who can only listen to earnest efforts to illuminate the issues for so long. My column about the first Congress in 1995 pretty much summed up my feelings on that topic – after six hours or so, I wrote, I wouldn’t care if Gov. Percival P. Baxter himself rose from the grave to talk about the Maine
- Interesting points:
- Peter Triandafillou, vice president for woodlands at Huber Resources in Old Town, said, “The changes of ownership in the Maine Woods, as far as the great wave of divestitures by the forest products companies, are at the end of that transition.”
- Pat McGowan, commissioner of conservation: “The forest of the State of Maine – and I can say this unequivocally – is in the best shape it’s been in for 50 years.”
- Danny Martin, IFW commissioner: “In the future, you’re going to hear a lot about initiatives and opportunities at Baxter Park.”
- Landowners large and small made a pretty hard pitch to leave the tree growth tax, which sportsmen have sometimes talked of trying to link to recreational access. “The annual assaults on tree growth are very discouraging to us,” said Tom Doak, executive director of SWOAM. “Leave the program alone. It’s providing a great benefit for the people of Maine.”
- The issues for landowners seemed to have shifted, at least slightly. Several landowner representatives saw marked improvement in the one issue that has dominated landowner relations for the past few years – ATVs – while illegal dumping of waste on private property was mentioned as issue that needed to be dealt with.
- Within a few weeks, IFW will be convening a working group of landowners to discuss the proposal for a southern Maine moose hunt. The department must report on the feasibility of such a hunt this session, but the public has taken little notice of the proposal so far. Since it was expected to be highly controversial, that makes everybody nervous. Maybe Sandy Ritchie, the wildlife planner who will be facilitating the landowner group, can figure out how people will react to moose hunting in southern Maine.
- The Atlantic Salmon Commission is working on a proposal to allow catch-and-release fishing for Atlantic salmon on the Penobscot River, which, along with Maine’s other Atlantic salmon rivers, was closed to fishing in 1999. “It’s a much-needed step,” said Pat Keliher, executive director of the commission. “It’s connecting this great fish back to the people.”
- In the upcoming turkey season (May 1- June 3), hunters who were born in even years will get to hunt in the “A” season, while hunters born in odd years will hunt in the “B” season. No swapping will be allowed, at least this year.
- The Sunday hunting brawl at the last legislative session was not remembered fondly by anyone. Doak and Jon Olson, director of the Maine Farm Bureau, urged sportsmen to give up the idea, pointing out it had failed at least 25 times in the Legislature over the past 31 years. But Smith, who led the failed battle for Sunday hunting, refused to concede, joking that sportsmen were “stubborn” about that issue. And Ed Pineau, the lobbyist who worked with Smith on the crusade, pointed out later that however divisive that battle might have been, it did achieve its goal. Without funds from Sunday hunting or the equally controversial canoe/kayak fee, legislators plugged IFW’s budget gap with $3.5 million in general fund revenue. “Remember the reason for Sunday hunting was to get the money,” Pineau said. “We got the money.”
- Points of conflict:
- Triandafillou spoke highly of the forest products industry’s cooperative agreements with IFW to preserve and protect winter deer yards, adding “I’m known in the industry as ‘Mr. Happy’ because I always take a positive view of things.”
- Olson, of the Farm Bureau, took IFW to task about the introduction of wild turkeys into Southern Aroostook County. Wild turkeys can usually be found hanging around farms, eating whatever they can find, and can become a real nuisance. “These farmers are quite upset,” Olson said. “For three weeks, their telephone calls to the department have not been returned. These are the types of things that are going to cause closed lands.” When IFW Commissioner Martin got his chance to respond, he insisted testily that farmers had been informed and consulted. DIF&W’s Mark Stadler added that IFW has decided to stop any further turkey introductions until in Aroostook until “we have an opportunity to look into the issue.”
- David Soucy’s remarks didn’t seem provoked by anyone else’s comments, but I hear the battle over the pending Allagash proposal is not going well. Or maybe something else was on his mind. But Soucy, the director of DOC’s Bureau of Parks and Lands was decidedly defensive when he came to the podium. “Say whatever you want, but don’t say we haven’t had a public process,” Soucy said, as if daring anyone to contradict him. No one did. But as Soucy stalked back to his seat, his jaw set and his face flushed with emotion, it seemed as if he almost wished they had. But passion can be a real handicap in the political game. When an old-fashioned donnybrook seems like a good thing, you probably need a time-out.
- Warden Service priorities: Major Gregg Sanborn, deputy chief warden, updated the Congress participants on four initiatives or concerns:
- For the first time in the service’s 125-year history, a position is being created for a “captain.” If approved, the captain will supervise investigations, internal affairs, landowner relations and whitewater rafting. (See related story.)
- There are 12 vacant warden districts and “it’s getting to the point where those 12 vacancies are starting to affect our operations,” Sanborn said. There are 99 applicants for those positions moving through the process, with written testing set for Jan. 18. Successful applicants are looking at 30 weeks of training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, he said, followed by nine weeks of field training. “What that means is it will be June 2007 before new game wardens hit the street,” Sanborn said. “So we have some time there where we’ll have to shuffle a little bit.”
- The warden service’s winter priorities include greater enforcement efforts on salmon waters, increased snowmobile OUI details in certain problem areas, and enforcement of a new law that requires riding on the right when going around a curve or approaching a hill.
- Gas conservation is a big concern.” We’re over budget right now. We did not budget for $3 a gallon gas. And unfortunately when gas went up to $3 a gallon we went in the red,” Sanborn said. “We’ve cut the warden’s patrol miles back 2,000 miles. So for the average game warden, that’s three weeks of patrol. Now that may not be enough. So we’re working very hard coming up with new initiatives, trying to use the aircraft more.”
- The shadow of the election: With the governor and everybody in the Maine House and Senate up for reelection this fall, politics was thick in the air at the Sportsman’s Congress. Not only did Gov. Baldacci give the keynote address, but his three (so far) Republican rivals were all in the audience – Sen. Peter Mills, Sen. Chandler Woodcock and former Congressman David Emery.
Everybody running for state office and most running for local office would really, really like to win the sportsmen’s vote. Gov. King made it very clear he felt sportsmen put him over the top and Baldacci, too, needed and still needs the votes of sportsmen and women.
“I think John Baldacci’s margin was the sportsmen he took,” said Pineau, who coordinated the governor’s “Sportsmen for Baldacci Committee.”
I wouldn’t say oratory is one of Baldacci’s gifts, although he does manage to convey the impression that he’s a regular Mainer and good guy. This year’s speech, however, was more disjointed than usual, as if he were trying to say everything everyone thought would attract the sportsmen’s vote. I recognized Smith’s voice, Pineau’s ideas, parts of various task force reports and even a few echoes of things I’d written during and just after Baldacci’s first campaign. I did not, however, write or recognize the sentence, “We’re also concerned about access to Maine’s waters from the booming Atlantic to the peaceful streams in Piscataquis County.” That’s something you’d be better off singing (to the tune of “American the Beautiful”) than saying.
The governor also seemed unaware that a lot of people from the Department of Conservation, including Commissioner McGowan, were in the room. All his thanks and accolades were directed at IFW, despite the fact that DOC folks also make a big difference in the outdoors.
I think any effort to please all of the sportsmen all of the time is doomed to failure. And as he ticked off all the reasons why Maine is incredibly better off than it was three years ago, I drifted into a daydream, humming the old song, “Blue skies shining at me, nothing but blue skies do I see.”
I did note that some of the IFW initiatives the governor was so proud to mention were, as one sportsman commented later in the parking lot, “rammed down the department’s throat.” It seemed especially unfair to see the crusade to protect native brook trout waters wind up on the governor’s list of accomplishments, because the SAM’s Fishing Initiative Committee had to go to war with IFW to get it. And Sen. Woodcock had to work extremely hard to bring SAM and IFW to an agreement, earning my personal Determined Diplomacy Under Fire Award for his efforts.
But Baldacci does deserve the credit he claimed for his staunch opposition to the bear referendum in 2004, and his to-the-bitter-end support for the doomed Sunday hunting effort last year. Whoever advised him to make that bargain – to keep a $3 fee increase in exchange for Sunday hunting – with George Smith ought to have his head examined, but at least the governor stood by his promise.
- Legislative forecast: The preoccupation with the election will make progress on outdoor issues pretty iffy during this short legislative session. Pineau thinks the biggest issue will be access, but even on that there will be more talk than action this session.
“I think legislative action on access – the serious part – will kick in next year,” Pineau said. “The conversations and the bill drafts and the ideas happen this year. That’s how I see it.
“Good ideas don’t happen overnight,” he added. “The other thing is – let’s be serious – this is a short session and it’s an election year in Augusta. You’ve got your whole House and Senate up. You’ve got a governor up for reelection. So that takes a lot of precedence in the next three months.”