Do Sportsmen Need Better Representation?
By Stu Bristol
"Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" is a line from a noted fairy tale that warns each us to be careful what we ask for, lest we get an answer we may not like. I'm asking hunters and anglers to look in the mirror this month and ask if their current representation to Maine government is really adequate, or, have we been expecting, but not getting something more.
From all corners of Maine this month we are hearing that drastic budget cuts demanded by the new administration are going to deal the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife and license-holders a crushing blow.
Game Wardens and biologist positions are being eliminated, and funding for just about every program critical to the department's operation is being slashed, and license-holders may be forced to endure another hike in fees with even fewer services coming in return. Never, since I moved to Maine in 1979, has there been such a deciding issue forced upon hunters and anglers.
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Is our current level of representation to the Maine Legislature and the Baldacci administration leaving us vulnerable? In short, do you believe the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine and the other dozen watchdog groups have the teeth to overcome what is on the horizon?
Back in the 1970s I joined with other outdoor writers in calling for hunters and anglers to join forces and support the fledgling special interest organizations that would give us a better voice in government. Trout, Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, the National Rifle Association, National Wild Turkey Federation and a host of other groups (including SAM) sprang up and hunters and anglers began getting a lot more bang for their bucks.
Instead of local rod and gun clubs trying to muster support on their own, for or against pending legislation, the oversight organizations employed their national might and lawmakers listened.
Since then, however, the trend in national and statewide organizations has turned to fund-raising and much of the funding generated has been spent internally on slick magazines, high-end collectable auctions and subsequently, higher membership fees. Many of the groups also funnel much of the funding out of state, to their national headquarters.
Instead of devout volunteer conservationists heading the local chapters of these groups, the organizations have followed suit of other national bodies and have hired professional fund-raisers whose salaries are directly linked to the number of new members brought in, the dollar amounts of fund-raising auctions and the local rod and gun clubs are very slowly being overshadowed, perhaps forgotten.
I remember heated discussions I and other national outdoor writers had with the likes of television star Mary Tyler Moore, James Garner and TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory, all pioneers in the so-called "animal rights" movement. Each of us writers shared financial reports gleaned from state and federal sources that showed that most of the groups spent the bulk of their collected funding on administration with very little going to help animals. The reports also pointed out, very clearly that these organizations depended upon scare tactics and hysteria to recruit members.
In popular women's magazines were photos of cute little animals caught in traps, some of which were doused with water to make them look more pathetic, all in the interest of sucking money from housewives and grandmothers.
As much as I hate to draw a parallel, our own National Rifle Association followed suit, recognizing the fact that hunters and anglers were also prime targets for hysteria campaigns. Remember the "Cold Dead Hands" slogan?
In Maine, the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine was founded on the principles of the National Rifle Association. I was proud to have been one of the first members to line right up and proclaim my right to "keep and bear arms" despite the fact that our leadership was scaring the pants off most of us with the fear that lawmakers and liberals were out to disarm us.
I have since dropped my membership from SAM, as a protest to what has been called a "monarchy-based" leadership. Lawmakers enjoy the current level of representation. They need only to sway the support of a handful of "paid gunslingers" representing the interests of hunters and anglers, instead of a roomful of angry license-holders.
Of course the liberal lawmakers really were trying subdue us, and continue their goal of disarming law-abiding citizens, but the formula for recruiting members remains the same. We are no better than our perceived enemies when it comes to fundraising. When you look in the mirror you have to recognize what you see.
What's worse, our watchdog organizations continue to pay their leadership on the basis of numbers of members brought in and retained so any attempt to form a grass-roots representative form of organization will be immediately perceived as the enemy and members of TU, DU, SAM and others have no choice but to shoot newcomers down.
What could make better sense, is a grass-roots organization to work in addition to, and in conjunction with SAM and the others, that would be comprised of a system of operation similar to our U.S. and state government; "Representation by the People."
In this case, representation would be by rod and gun clubs, conservation groups and non-consumptive watchdogs such as Audubon, Sierra Club and others. All the outdoor stakeholders would be fairly represented.
A fair example would be the long-running Vermont watchdog group, the Vermont Federation of Sportsman's Clubs. Dozens of groups comprise this group and each one gets a number of votes at each meeting for or against the issues and the Vermont lawmakers are forced to deal with a broad base of constituents, not just the paid fund-raisers.
Maine lawmakers know that if SAM or the other groups send out a petition that members will blindly sign and return the documents but when push comes to shove, it is just the leaders and their lieutenants that matter.
Image the impact if we had a Maine Federation of Sportsman's Club and it's leadership testifies at a hearing, immediately followed by 50-75 e-mails or letters from the individual member clubs and if needed, hundreds of letters from the individual members?
Consider, too, that in these dire economic times that other states and Canada are beefing up their advertising campaigns to vie for sportsman's dollars.
In New Hampshire, with half the resources and real estate of Maine, fish stocking and game releases are miles ahead of Maine programs, and the same is true in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The New Hampshire pheasant program is based on the purchase and release of adult birds and each year the program not only makes a profit, the profit is immediately turned back into more birds for release.
This year I will be hunting and fishing in Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine and other states as my writing assignments take me. I can take up to six deer in Connecticut, three wild turkeys in the spring and three in the fall and the fishing knocks the socks off Maine stocking program. Why should Connecticut hunters and anglers come to Maine? For the same or less money, they can go to Canada, if it's wilderness they want.
Of course I can answer that question, but most license-holders can't and Maine will surely lose revenue unless our Tourism Agency levels the playing field for consumptive outdoor sports. Instead of spending the lion's share on advertising lobsters and lighthouses, our tourism dollars should be equally supporting hunting and fishing guides, sporting camps and related businesses.
Of concern to me is the behind the scenes chatter I heard recently, noting that the Baldacci administration would be appointing a Commissioner of IF&W who is neither a biologist nor a Game Warden. That has now come true and a former leading politician has also been added as Deputy Commissioner. Does this mean the Baldacci camp trusts politicians more than the scientists, on the topic of fish and wildlife management?
"To the victor belongs the spoils," is an age-old truism of the political world. In the political world lucrative government contracts are awarded to political friends. Political friends and contributors get important jobs regardless of their qualifications and the losers when it comes to fish and wildlife management is, after all, the fish and wildlife of Maine. I have said for more than 30 years, "When we manage fish and wildlife in a manner that is best for fish and wildlife, hunters and anglers will benefit."
Can SAM, TU, DU, and other watchdog groups adequately fend off the politicians that are rarely well-educated as to the needs of fish and wildlife as are hunters and anglers, or do we need a better-supplemented form of representation?
Stu Bristol is a freelance writer, living in Lyman. His weekly and monthly columns have been published nationwide for over 30 years. For more Stu Bristol articles visit www.stubristol.com.
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