“Declaring peace: The gun hunting lobby is now talking about habitat protection.”

That was the front page headline in the Oct. 29, 1993 edition of Maine Times, which included a photo of me with my hunting dog and shotgun. I loved the Page 2 headline: “An old adversarial relationship between hunters and environmentalists may finally dissolve.”

The story was written by Andrew Weegar during my first full year as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. It emphasized our effort to broaden SAM’s agenda beyond firearms and hunting by also focusing on fisheries, landowner relations, and conservation. I recognized that the sportsmen’s cause would be much stronger with a broader agenda and a cooperative relationship with environmental groups.

In Weegar’s article, I emphasized the importance of Maine Audubon’s support for a constitutional amendment that put the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in the Constitution and protected its revenue, a campaign that I managed. “I give Audubon a lot of credit,” I told Weegar. “I feel a critical factor in our victory was the support and high visibility of the Audubon Society.”

SAM returned the favor by supporting Audubon’s legislation creating the loon license plate to support nongame programs. It really didn’t take us long to recognize that sportsmen and environmentalists share many of the same goals, especially the protection of important wildlife habitat.

The power of that alliance was demonstrated recently when groups representing environmentalists and sportsmen rallied to support the Land For Maine’s Future program. Unfortunately, that cooperative venture is not representative of the relationship between these groups. I don’t see much evidence over the last few years that sportsmen and environmentalists are working together or sharing a common agenda, and that’s not good for either group.

That’s why I am advocating for the revitalization of the Conservation Recreation Forum, the creation of which was a key recommendation of Gov. John Baldacci’s Task Force on Public Lands.

The forum consisted of organizations representing environmentalists, sportsmen, outdoor recreationists, and landowners, along with state natural resource agency staff, and met a couple of times a year to learn about key issues, reduce areas of conflict, and find new ways to collaborate.

The initial conferences were well-attended and very successful, but stalled out after I left my job as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine at the end of 2010. In 2013 I was able to organize a forum conference focused on major legislative issues, with the help of a grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund. The Maine Forest Products Council was a partnered in sponsoring and hosting that conference.

I’ve still got the list of attendees and it is impressive, including all of the state’s major groups representing sportsmen and environmentalists, plus chambers of commerce, tourism officials, loggers and lumbermen, and several of the state’s major news reporters.

We heard from Carolanne Ouellette, the leader of the Maine Tourism Commission, about the status and needs of outdoor recreation and the tourism economy in rural Maine, a topic that led to an exchange of questions and answers for more than an hour. We’re going to need to hear that speech again when Envision Maine hosts a new Summit on Maine’s Rural Economy later this year!

Tom Doak of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, Beth Ahearn of the Maine Conservation Alliance, and Don Kleiner of the Maine Professional Guides Association served as panelists on issues at that year’s legislative session. And we even heard about natural resources issues at the national level in a taped message from Sen. Angus King.

I tried to find permanent funding so the forum could continue, and hoped to organize a conference at the end of 2013 on native and wild brook trout and key issues expected in the next legislative session, but was unsuccessful in achieving that. We even attempted to schedule breakfast and luncheon meetings of lobbyists for these groups during the legislative session, but it just didn’t work.

And this was about much more than just working together at the Legislature. The forum conferences included everything from initiatives to get kids outside to creation of ecological reserves to the impacts of climate change.

After our first forum in 2008, Bruce Kidman of The Nature Conservancy explained our commitment: “We will actively seek out opportunities to respectfully discuss with one another our understandings, values and needs, knowing that differences need not keep us from working toward common goals.”

Today, we need to do this, more than ever. It’s time to revitalize the Conservation Recreation Forum.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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