In one of the many tributes to George Smith, who recently passed away after a four-year battle with ALS, George noted that one of his most prized accomplishments was establishing the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund (MOHF), a specially-designed program that awards grants for wildlife and habitat conservation, land protection and stewardship, endangered species, and law enforcement and education. The program is funded from lottery ticket sales, and was one of George’s many ideas for raising money for fish and wildlife conservation in Maine.
I had the privilege of working with George on that effort. George knew the Sportsmen’s Alliance of Maine, where he served as the Executive Director, couldn’t create the fund alone, so he approached Maine Audubon about a possible partnership. He figured, and we agreed, that if we could combine the power and support of our two organizations and constituents–hunters, anglers, wildlife-watchers, and environmentalists–that we could really make things happen.
We ultimately decided the only way to create the program and protect the funds was through a Citizen Referendum. It was a long haul, and a huge commitment, including collecting signatures, and writing, submitting, and passing the bill. In an extraordinary move, the Legislature thought it was such a good idea, and that it would likely pass a referendum vote, they decided to enact it into law without even sending it to the people for a vote and having to go through that next campaign phase.
After the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund was established in 1995, both George and I served as inaugural Board members, creating the program from scratch, including the strategic plan and criteria for evaluating and awarding grants. During the ten years we were both on the Board, we awarded 464 grants worth $12,006,696 that facilitated new partnerships, matching funds, and many wonderful conservation projects. To date, a total of 1,203 projects have been funded, totaling $21,503,171 in awards. What a wonderful legacy, George!
When we gathered twice a year to discuss and award grant funds, it was clear that George always did his homework; he carefully reviewed each and every proposal, scrutinized budgets, and frequently raised questions with applicants about their projects. Through his reviews, questions, comments, and votes, I came to know and respect George and his passions. It was obvious George cared deeply about Maine, Maine’s fish and wildlife, and getting kids and adults outdoors.
A few of the topics he was particularly passionate about: sending kids to Bryant Pond Conservation Camp, protecting wild trout, hunter safety, and outreach about wildlife and conservation. He especially loved Wildfire–a rapid-fire cable TV show hosted by George and Harry Vanderweide (pictured above on the set of Wildfire) that interviewed a wide variety of sportsmen and women and conservationists about their work in Maine. George and Harry were a formidable interview team that could make you squirm if you were on the guest seat, but that made for a lively and engaging show. George used this platform to help promote the MOHF, among other things, and also used his association with Harry to create and broadcast a series of shows on different MOHF projects to both highlight the success of the program, and try to encourage more folks to buy more MOHF tickets.
Over the many years we worked together, we sometimes strongly disagreed on proposed bills, IFW policies, or funding priorities. George brought a quiet passion to his work, was an ardent supporter of many things, and was a formidable adversary if you didn’t agree with him. Because he was politically astute, sometimes that meant he would use whatever means he could to get what he wanted. Still, he never held a grudge or refused to work with us when we didn’t agree.
And sometimes, he even changed his mind. When we first approached the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee in 2002 to request a ban on the sale and use of certain sized lead sinkers and jigs, because we had documented evidence that Common Loons were ingesting them and subsequently dying from lead poisoning, George fiercely opposed our proposal. He argued that it was too much of a burden on anglers to switch to non-lead alternatives, and felt there was no evidence that this was having a measurable impact on the overall Common Loon population. We disagreed–safe alternatives were available, and by switching, we could do something to help loons. After extensive testimony and fanfare, the Committee finally agreed to pass a ban only on the sale of certain sized lead tackle, but at least it was a start. When we returned to the Legislature several years later to add a ban on the use of lead sinkers as well, and to add certain sized tackle that had been excluded from the original bill, this time George supported the bill, because he had the unpleasant and very memorable experience of watching a lead-poisoned loon flail and die in the water right in front of his lake house.
At the same time, both George and Maine Audubon took steps to try to improve working relations between our two organizations, harkening back to the MOHF partnership, where we knew we were stronger together than separate, and stronger united than divided. We began meeting on an annual basis before the start of each legislative session to share bills we were putting in or considering, and discuss our various perspectives on the bills, so we could try to hash out any differences before the public hearing.
After George left SAM, inspired by the infectious coaching of former Maine Audubon Trustee Bob Duschesne, George and his wife Linda became avid bird-watchers, traveling around the country searching for birds in a variety of landscapes. George softened his approach towards conservationists and environmentalists, and often highlighted Maine Audubon’s efforts in his various columns and blogposts. He especially loved and promoted our wild Brook Trout survey and habitat conservation efforts, and our support for the Land for Maine’s Future program. His writings captured the attention and imagination of many, and undoubtedly inspired many thousands to take to, explore, and engage with the woods, waters, and wildlife of Maine.
More recently, even though it was difficult for him because of his illness, George attended many of the meetings of the Heritage Waters Work Group that I served on, and he always had an informed and interesting perspective to share during the public comment period. I like to think we and IFW did him proud with the final product from that committee–a better and more transparent review of how ponds are added to the Heritage Waters list, and new rules that restrict the use of live bait in all moving and still waters of the Northern Zone (you can learn more at Maine Audubon’s website here). By protecting the best habitat and reducing the introduction of nonnative fish that could compete with and undermine these remnant populations, we hope to safeguard the last and best stronghold from wild Brook Trout in all of the eastern United States.
Rest in peace George. We will miss you. But know that your many contributions to Maine’s fish and wildlife– even songbirds!–will live on.
Director of Conservation
22 February 2021
p.s. In memory of George, we urge you to buy MOHF lottery tickets! You can learn more about the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund program here, and find tickets at most convenience stores.