In a recent speech at a Maine Audubon fundraiser, I talked about my hunting/fishing heritage, my career as an advocate for that heritage, and about my work at the legislature. I also spoke about some of the challenges we face, including saving our moose herd.
I want to share that speech with you today. Here it is.
When I took on the job of reviving the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which had fallen on hard times, in 1991, the first person who reached out to me at the legislature was Beth Ahearn, the longtime lobbyist for Maine Audubon. Many of you probably know that Beth is now the lobbyist for the Maine Conservation Voters.
Beth really taught me to lobby, and I am very proud of the partnership that SAM and Maine Audubon had during those years. We did a lot together including creating the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund which has now given over $20 million in grants to outdoor recreation and conservation projects. Audubon’s Sally Stockwell and I served on the Heritage Fund board for its first ten years and I always enjoyed working with Sally. Still do, actually.
Our recent successful restoration of Arctic Char to Big Reed Pond, a very big story, was helped by three grants from the Outdoor Heritage Fund.
It is important for you to realize that sportsmen and women are – just like you – conservationists and environmentalists. We all share the same goals, whether it is wildlife habitat protection or ways to address climate change.
I was born a Maine sportsman, and hunted with my Dad for 53 years. So it’s not surprising that this became my life’s work. Hunting and fishing is a great heritage.
One of the achievements I am most proud of during my 18 years at SAM is the creation of our Heritage Waters where we protect native brook trout and arctic char. SAM submitted the original bill to do this, and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife vigorously opposed it. But we got it enacted, with the protection of 300 waters that had never been stocked and held native brook trout.
Later another 200 waters were added, and Audubon took the lead in searching for more waters to add to the list. I have really appreciated Audubon’s leadership and work on that.
Unfortunately, many of those ponds where we have found native brook trout thanks to Audubon’s volunteers have not yet been added to the Heritage List. So this year, I proposed legislation to do that, and to expand protection to the tributaries of the waters on the Heritage list. I was very pleased when Andrew Beame, on behalf of Maine Audubon, offered very supportive and helpful testimony on my bills.
DIF&W strongly opposed the bills, but the legislature’s Fish and Wildlife Committee embraced them, forcing the department to step up and promise to achieve our goals by the end of 2017. The IFW Committee decided to give them that chance, but also wisely carried over to the 2018 session one of my bills, just in case the department doesn’t get the job done.
I would really love it if Maine Audubon would get even more involved in protecting and enhancing our native fish.
Down East Books published my book on Maine Sporting Camps last year, and it’s kind of a sad story. We’ve gone from more than 300 of the traditional sporting camps to about 3 dozen. When I asked camp owners what their biggest challenges are, right at the top of the list was the loss of hunters and anglers. The best places to catch native brook trout now are in Canada, including my favorite, the Leaf River.
I use Claybrook Mountain Lodge as an example. Greg and Pat Drummond worked at Cobb’s Pierce Pond Camps for years. Pat was the cook and Greg was a guide. Then they built an 8 bedroom lodge next to their house in North New Portland – near Kingfield.
Deer hunting was their most profitable business. Now it’s their least profitable. The Drummond’ most profitable business today is cross country skiing. A great deer wintering area right across the road from their lodge is long gone, completely cut over. Yes, we failed to protect critical deer wintering areas, and we have paid a terrible price for that failure. For years DIFW relied on voluntary agreements to protect deer wintering areas. Clearly, that did not work.
A few years ago, with Maine Audubon’s help, the Drummonds started offering two birding weekends in May. Linda and I have attended those for the past three years, and they are loads of fun. One of our favorite birding guides, Ron Joseph, a retired wildlife biologist, and Greg Drummond are our guides. This year we identified 100 species of birds that weekend. Fun!
Please don’t tell my hunting buddies, but my wife Linda and I are avid birders. We’ve traveled lots of places to see birds, including Costa Rica, and spent lots of time in Texas and southeast Arizona, as well as on Monhegan Island, on birding adventures. If you want, I can talk a lot more about that later!
We started birding only about 12 years ago, when we saw a neighbor in our front yard with binoculars. Turns out we have perfect habitat for warblers, and the first time I saw a Blackburnian Warbler, I was hooked.
One of our first birding adventures was an Aububon day trip to Monhegan, where the warblers were so tired they were sitting on the ground. Amazing! We now get out to Monhegan every year, usually in early May and sometimes in the fall. In fact, we were there last week.
And we rent a house near the south Lubec sandbar in late August, the best place in Maine to see migrating shorebirds according to Bob Duchesne, the author of the Maine Birding Trail. That book is essential if you are an avid birder, as is a new book, Birdwatching in Maine, edited by Derek Lovitch and containing site guides by birding experts including Herb Wilson and Ron Joseph.
You can access my reviews on those books, and a lot of the other columns I am writing, on my website, georgesmithmaine.com. Linda and I have been writing travel columns for the last seven years, published every Sunday in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. We have so many wonderful inns and restaurants in Maine. On my website, I have a Best of Maine section in which you can select a town and read all the columns we’ve written about places there.
I also write outdoor news that I post on my website and the Bangor Daily News website. In 2014 the Maine Press Association gave me an award for writing the state’s best sports blog. I didn’t even know I was writing a sports blog. The Press Association used to have a category for news about hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities. But no more. So I’m in the same category as people writing about football and baseball.
It was nice to receive the award but sobering to think that we don’t even deserve our own category, in a state where one of my heroes, Gene Letourneau, wrote about hunting and fishing every day for 50 years in our central and southern Maine newspapers. No one does that today.
I like to include in my talks a short story, from my first book, A Life Lived Outdoors. This is a story about the wild critters that have gotten into our house, which was built in 1796 and has just a crawl space under one section, offering access to lots of critters. One year when I was a Selectman I was running late to an evening meeting. To get to our garage, you go down a stairway, though my workshop, and to a door that opens into the garage.
In a rush, I didn’t turn on the light. When I got to the door to the garage, I felt the cat walk across my feet. I reached down to pet it and a skunk blasted me right in the face.
I rushed upstairs, throwing off my clothes, which my wife threw away, jumped in the shower, and eventually got to the Selectmen’s meeting. No one sat anywhere near me!
Finally, you all know how important Maine’s environment and wildlife are to each of you, and to many of our summer residents and tourists and economy. I think we must recognize that, in spite of all the great work we’ve done, there is a lot more to do.
Let’s take moose as an example. Most of us, and all of our tourists, enjoy seeing moose. But they are dying in large numbers from winter ticks. Moose watching businesses are having a tough time finding moose to show their customers. And while we are finally doing the necessary research to understand the numbers of moose that are dying, we’ve done nothing to save them, nor do we have a plan to do that.
We have a camp in the north woods on the edge of Baxter Park and for many years deer and moose were on our lawn all the time. But we haven’t seen a deer there in 3 years, and have seen only one moose,
In closing, we have many environmental challenges ahead, topped by climate change, something I write about a lot. At a Climate Table event in September, I suggested that we put the photos of young children on every climate change column and handout, because we must solve this problem for our children and grandchildren.
If we fail to do this, they are the ones who will suffer, and eventually blame us for failing to act. Something for you to think about, and join us in addressing.