AUGUSTA, Maine — The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine announced Monday that George Smith will step down as executive director later this year, ending a high-profile and sometimes controversial career with the state’s largest hunting and fishing organization.
Smith will continue to serve through December to help the transition to a new director, which SAM officials hope to name by July 1.
While there were some rumblings Monday that he was forced out by SAM’s board of directors, Smith and several board members said he is leaving on good terms but that the timing was right for the two sides to part ways.
“I want to cut back [on hours] and they want a more traditional presence in the office,” Smith said. “So this worked out well. I’m really looking forward to it.”
“It gives us an opportunity to go in a somewhat different direction” with the executive director position, said SAM board member Matt Dunlap, who is also Maine’s secretary of state. “It’s all ended amicably.”
Smith has been the organization’s frontman since 1993, representing SAM in Augusta and in the media on a host of issues affecting hunters, fishermen, trappers and other sportsmen. But he has been involved with the organization for more than 30 years, including serving as a past president.
During the past 18 years, Smith has become one of the better-known lobbyists in Augusta, maintaining a near-constant presence in the State House during the legislative sessions. He is also the public face for SAM on issues from the mundane to the highly divisive.
In 2004, Smith and his sister, campaign manager Edie Smith, helped lead the successful fight against a referendum to prohibit bear hunting using bait, dogs or traps. He also has been a major advocate for bringing back coyote snaring in Maine, a practice decried as inhumane by some groups.
“George is an excellent politician and lobbyist and he will be missed by those of us who enjoy a good fight,” said Daryl DeJoy, executive director of the Wildlife Alliance of Maine, who frequently found himself testifying opposite of Smith.
Although frequently acting as the spokesman for SAM, Smith’s hard-line positions and aggressive lobbying on some issues occasionally angered other sportsmen.
For instance, Smith fiercely opposed the 2006 land deal that added Katahdin Lake to Baxter State Park — a project with considerable public support, including among many sportsmen.
Smith and other opponents criticized the deal because hunting would be prohibited within the southern 4,000 acres of the parcel, but supporters pointed out that few hunters used the remote site, which was part of late Gov. Percival Baxter’s original vision for his park.
Earlier this year, Smith once again employed hardball political tactics to delay and nearly scuttle a bill to create a saltwater fishing registry for anglers in order to comply with federal requirements.
Smith said he plans to stay involved with SAM and to continue working on particular issues, including protecting and increasing funding for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. He also plans to focus on his consulting business, Mainely Marketing.
Smith said he first approached SAM’s board seven years ago with a plan to start cutting back his hours once he reached age 60. He also worked primarily from his Mount Vernon home, but SAM’s board made clear they want the executive director to work at the organization’s office in Augusta and to become more of a business manager.
Now 62, Smith said he wants to spend more time hunting and fishing.
“I didn’t want to work as much, and it seemed obvious that they needed a full-time executive director,” he said.
Rep. Paul Davis, a Sangerville Republican who serves on SAM’s board, agreed that board members want a regular presence in the office. Davis also disputed rumors that Smith had been forced out or fired by the board.
“He has represented sportsmen very effectively for a long time,” said Davis, who serves on the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee. “He has done a good job.”