Once a foe to greens, now a surprising ally, the writer and former Augusta heavyweight looks back on a rich Maine life — and ahead at one last challenge.
By Murray Carpenter
Photographed by Tristan Spinski
From his office at his home in Mount Vernon, George Smith can see through the trees to where Minnehonk Lake narrows into Hopkins Stream, which passes along the edge of his property. A short canoe ride downstream is a woodlot where he shot some magnificent whitetail bucks, four of which are mounted and hanging on the office’s wood-paneled walls. Smith has brook trout hanging as well, carved from wood and painted in a folk-art style by his late father, Ezra. On a side table sits an ancient typewriter that Ezra Smith used to write letters he sent to the Kennebec Journal.
At the center of the room stands a large desk, where, on a recent morning, Smith sat in his wheelchair, pecking away at a blog entry.
During 18 years as executive director of the influential Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Smith strategized his legislative work from this office. In his heyday in the 1990s, Smith strode the tall halls of the State House like a gladiator. In his advocacy for Maine hunters and anglers, he was good-natured but fierce, with his ferocity often opposing the entire environmental lobby.
But things have changed for the 70-year-old. For starters, some of his stances have softened and evolved since he left the Sportsman’s Alliance in 2010 and segued from conservative crusader to outdoors and travel writer. And he’s fighting a different battle these days, this time against Lou Gehrig’s disease. Now confined to a wheelchair, he no longer has the strength to cast a fly rod, much less swing a shotgun or aim a rifle. He no longer visits the State House, but he still monitors legislative hearings online. And he keeps on writing, telling the tales that have made him one of Maine’s best-read columnists.
Smith typed the last few words of the blog entry into his laptop, with his increasingly uncooperative fingers, and posted it. Then he pushed his wheelchair back from the desk and reflected on a life afield.
In Smith’s telling, his childhood in Winthrop in the 1950s was like a Norman Rockwell painting.
“It was a very small town, but you didn’t have to go to Augusta to go shopping,” he remembers. “Most of the stores had the owner’s name on them, and the owner was in there. My dad worked at Wilson’s Dollar Store, and I was named for George Wilson.”
Smith and his friends spent whole days outdoors, never supervised, exploring the woods and fishing for brook trout. He remembers the era wistfully. “Dad’s whole block is gone now,” he says. “They tore it down, and everyone had to go to Augusta to get their groceries. It’s so different now.”
He studied business at UMaine in Orono, graduated in 1970, and went to work for a bank in Rockland. Strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, he asked his boss if he could leave at noon on a Friday to take a bus to a protest march in Washington, DC. His boss said no. Smith left early anyway and was fired on Monday.
In the 1990s, Smith strode the tall halls of the State House like a gladiator. In his advocacy for Maine hunters and anglers, he was good-natured but fierce, with his ferocity often opposing the entire environmental lobby.
But another door soon opened when he was hired as a driver and personal aide for then–Bangor mayor William Cohen, a Republican, in Cohen’s successful 1972 campaign to represent Maine’s second district in the U.S. Congress. Two years later, Smith managed Republican Dave Emery’s long-shot campaign for the first district, against Democrat and four-term incumbent Peter Kyros. After an upset victory, Emery brought Smith to Washington to manage his office.
“We got to DC, we were 26, two young Republicans, had no idea what we were doing,” Smith says. “Ed Muskie was a big prominent Democrat senator. He did everything he could to help us — we had all these meetings in his private office. Today, no prominent member of one party would help a person in another party, but that’s how we got started.”
Smith spent eight years on Capitol Hill, returning to Maine in 1983, after Emery challenged George Mitchell for his senate seat and lost. He hung his shingle as a consultant, writing comprehensive plans for Maine municipalities and managing campaigns for ballot measures.
Then, in 1991, the Kennebec Journal offered Smith a column. Douglas Rooks, then the paper’s editorial page editor, had published submissions by Smith’s father — Ezra Smith’s pieces were pithy, two-paragraph observations of life, mostly from a rural, right-leaning perspective that was skeptical of change. Smith too had submitted a few columns, and Rooks noticed that his opinionated pieces generated a lot of reader response. Rooks and Smith named the new column The Native Conservative, and Smith has filed thousands of columns since.
In 1993, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine hired Smith as its executive director. It seemed a perfect blend of his passions. The organization advocated for the interests of hunters and anglers and had a decidedly conservative bent. At the time, the group was modest in size and influence, with about 2,000 members. Under Smith’s leadership, SAM’s membership would grow to more than 14,000.
Smith quickly became the group’s recognizable face and powerful voice. He focused his energy on advocacy in the legislature, working in the State House or from his home office in Mount Vernon, a 25-minute drive away. His appetite for legislation was prodigious. State senators and representatives often filed two-dozen bills on his behalf per legislative session. And while he advocated fiercely (and presciently) for the protection of Maine’s wild, native brook trout and supported bond issues for public land acquisition, Smith was best known as an effective campaigner for positions that often seemed to oppose the state’s environmental lobby.
In the ’90s, he fought the push to list Atlantic salmon under the Endangered Species Act and the citizens’ initiative for an all-out ban on clear-cutting. He opposed wildlife advocates when they argued to restore alewife passage to the St. Croix River in the ’90s and ’00s. He opposed them again when they sought to ban coyote snaring. And, staunchly, vehemently, he condemned the proposal for a national park in the Maine North Woods, butting heads with its high-profile backer, Burt’s Bees cofounder and mega-landowner Roxanne Quimby. Smith printed and distributed bumper stickers that became ubiquitous in northern Maine during the protracted park debate. Riffing on the “Ban Clearcutting” slogan, they read, simply, “Ban Roxanne.”
Smith’s opposition to such environmental initiatives — and his advocacy against gun regulations and in favor of Sunday hunting — was largely effective, bolstered by his compelling, sometimes theatrical storytelling. At one legislative hearing, in 1997, Smith spoke out against a bill to list 20 species, including a dragonfly and a mayfly, to the state’s list of threatened and endangered animals. As the Portland Press Herald reported it, Smith “stood before the committee with his right hand in the air, balancing a wooden plaque with the mounted head of a deer. Between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand he squeezed a mayfly. ‘Until we have enough of these,’ he said, holding the deer trophy aloft, ‘We think it’s the height of folly to be working on these.’” Smith waved the insect.
It didn’t hurt that passels of SAM members often showed up at legislative hearings to support him, clad in flannel and camo, like salt-of-the-Earth constituents from central casting. Nor, perhaps, did the Smith family’s across-the-aisle political ties: Smith’s father was featured in a famously effective ad for independent Angus King’s first campaign for governor. His sister, Edie Smith, is a former Republican strategist who went on to become a staffer for now-senator King. She managed a campaign opposing Maine’s 2004 ballot initiative to ban bear baiting at the same time Smith was battling it at SAM. Smith is also a longtime friend of Governor Janet Mills, who recently appointed his brother, Gordon Smith, to the post of opiate czar.
Cathy Johnson, who has worked for the Natural Resources Council of Maine for nearly three decades, often found herself at odds with Smith during his SAM tenure. In the mid-’00s, they clashed over a proposed addition to Baxter State Park of land around Katahdin Lake (and the hunting restrictions that accompanied it). Around the same time, Smith vocally supported Plum Creek Timber Company’s controversial plan to sell residential lots near Greenville, in exchange for a conservation easement. Johnson and NRCM stalwartly opposed it.
What friends and foes all seem to agree on is that Smith was a persuasive force on the floor — and in the cafeteria, hallways, and sometimes even men’s room — of the State House.
But Johnson, now NRCM’s senior staff attorney and forests and wildlife director, says she and Smith shared a mutual respect. She was a frequent guest on Wildfire, the community-access cable TV show Smith cohosted (mostly with Harry Vanderweide, editor of The Maine Sportsman magazine) from 2002 to 2016.
“I was on their show many times, and we would spar vigorously,” Johnson says, “but I really enjoyed being on. He was a good person to spar with. It was always civil and in good humor.”
Others, particularly those on the receiving end of Smith’s bulldog efforts to shape state policy, found his manner abrasive. After Smith announced his retirement from SAM in 2010, citing a desire to cut back on hours, Lee Perry, a former commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, told the Press Herald, “Whether he did it consciously or whether it was just the way he was driven, he came across as just mean and cruel in a lot of the things he did.” Perry added, “He was certainly a force to be reckoned with.”
What friends and foes all seem to agree on is that Smith was a persuasive force on the floor — and in the cafeteria, hallways, and sometimes even men’s room — of the State House. “He’s a great speaker, a great storyteller,” Johnson says. “I never wanted to have to testify after him.”
A funny thing happened after Smith stepped down from SAM. In the years that followed, Johnson says, she started noticing many of Smith’s columns taking on a greener hue.
“It evolved slowly, after he left Sportsman’s Alliance,” Johnson says. “Initially, it would be like ‘Oh, look what George wrote,’ and we would send it around the office, and we’d all be surprised at what he said. Now, we’d be surprised if what he said wasn’t consistent with what we support — but it didn’t happen overnight, it happened over time.”
To hear Smith tell it, his decades of work in the State House helped transform him from the firebrand he was in his younger years.
“I knew everything, what needed to be done,” he says. “All you needed to do was what I told you to do. Then, after I started working with SAM and really spending time at the legislature, I learned that you have to be open to everybody’s ideas, and they aren’t all bad, and you don’t know everything. I learned that over time, mostly as a lobbyist, and that’s made a big difference to me today.”
These days, Smith and Johnson seem mostly to be playing on the same team. For example, Smith says that species disturbance in Maine has convinced him of the importance of climate change, an issue he never gave much thought to during his years at SAM. Passionate about it now — and astonished that the issue remains politicized — he’s devoted columns to praising NRCM’s clean-energy proposals.
“This isn’t going to matter to us, but our grandchildren are going to hate us, because they are going to suffer, really suffer, if we don’t get going on this,” Smith says. “The fisheries have changed tremendously. Our waters are warming up. It’s not good for brook trout. The wildlife, the habitat, everything’s changing. We’re seeing new species, and some species are disappearing.”
Of course, plenty of Smith’s views haven’t changed — for instance, he still considers Endangered Species Act protections for Atlantic salmon an expensive and futile effort — but he says his thinking is less restrained now, without a dues-paying constituency to please.
“He’s been a very reliable voice raising concerns about the Central Maine Power transmission line, and he’s been a very reliable supporter of [the state-funded land-conservation program] Land for Maine’s Future,” Johnson says. “Things are very different than they were 20 years ago.”
“It’s funny,” Smith says, “because as I’ve gotten older, most people get more conservative, and I got more liberal. I’ve read some of my old columns from 28 years ago, and they’re embarrassing. . . . I’m a lot more, I guess you would say ‘liberal,’ but just more reasonable.”
In 2013, Smith even changed the name of his Kennebec Journal column: The Native Conservative became Maine Stream. He remains conservative, Smith wrote soon after, “but not in the ferocious, doctrinaire way that some choose to display their thoughts.”
Smith’s longtime friend Jim Robbins isn’t surprised by Smith’s recent environmental advocacy. Robbins, president of Robbins Lumber in Searsmont, met Smith before he took the helm at the Sportsman’s Alliance, when Smith prepared a comprehensive plan for Searsmont in the 1980s. The pair bonded during days afield, trout fishing and woodcock hunting, from dawn to dusk. Robbins says his friend could catch a trout out of a mud puddle — and that he’s always been a conservationist, in the tradition of many hunters and anglers.
“I don’t think his views have changed as much as some people think,” Robbins says.
David Trahan disagrees. A former state senator from Waldoboro, Trahan is SAM’s current executive director. “He’s changed his positions quite a bit since he was SAM director,” says Trahan, whose Augusta office has an Ezra Smith brook trout on the wall. “His positions changed, not SAM’s. I think SAM’s positions have stayed consistent.”
Smith and Trahan, who’d worked together on bills, clashed publicly in 2013 and 2014, first when they testified on opposing sides of a legislative push to extend firearms background checks to private sales (Smith supported, SAM opposed) and later when Smith wrote a blistering column encouraging sportsmen to vote against then-governor Paul LePage in his 2014 reelection bid. SAM ultimately withheld its endorsement in that race, but not before Trahan put out a press release upbraiding Smith for continuing to cite his former SAM leadership, despite “embark[ing] on a career writing about issues that are often in conflict with the positions of our organization.” (It’s now water under the bridge, Trahan says: “That conflict worked its way out. We’re still friends.”)
George Smith with a bluefish in 1985; in a family Polaroid, after shooting his first pheasant; with a whitetail buck. Smith’s first deer hunt was with his father at age 12. Portland Press Herald | Getty Images (bluefish); Courtesy of George Smith (pheasant, deer)
Perhaps Smith’s most striking change of heart was on the question of a national park in the North Woods. When Roxanne Quimby and others began advocating for a park, in the mid-’90s, the northern Maine paper industry was in rapid decline. Quimby and her ilk saw a massive park as an economic lifeline for the region, while Smith thought it would kill the area’s economy and end traditional access to timberlands for hunting, fishing, and trapping.
But as the battle dragged on, Quimby started meeting monthly with a coalition of park foes. Smith, she says, emerged as one of that group’s leaders. “I think he has really good personal skills — he’s friendly, he listens, he was a pleasure to work with,” Quimby says. “He really was open-minded. And some of the other folks on that coalition were simply belligerent. And so he ended up being an ally, in the end.”
Eventually, the park proposal was scaled back to focus on a smaller parcel of Quimby’s land that would allow some hunting and snowmobiling. And Smith became a supporter. He says discussions with sporting camp owners and Quimby’s son, park advocate Lucas St. Clair, convinced him of the plan’s economic value.
In May 2016, Smith was in a crowd of more than 1,000 people at an Orono public hearing held by the director of the National Park Service. By then, the conversation around Quimby’s land had shifted to its possible status as a national monument. At the hearing, a SAM spokesman sounded off against such a designation. Smith spoke in support. “I was sitting on one side of the room, and a lot of my friends were sitting on the other side,” he recalls.
That August, Quimby donated her land to the National Park Service, and President Obama designated Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Smith remains highly supportive of the monument, not least because of its copious habitat for native brook trout.
“The bottom line is that, even though I created the ‘Ban Roxanne’ bumper sticker, Roxanne and I are very good friends now. So this can happen, you know? I hear from her a lot. Actually, she and Lucas are big sponsors of my website. Now who would have imagined that? Roxanne Quimby sponsoring my website!”
Smith has been writing steadily since he left SAM. He and his wife, Linda, wrote weekly travel columns for seven years. He’s written four books, including a collection of his columns, entitled A Life Lived Outdoors. Increasingly, he’s been reviewing books, mostly by Maine authors.
The writing life has been an interesting and fruitful third act for Smith. It allowed him to spend more time with Linda and their three children and four grandchildren at their camp on Nesowadnehunk Lake, just west of Baxter State Park, surrounded by moose-rich woods, brook trout rising in the cold water. But seven years into his new career, things changed for Smith.
In the spring of 2017, he noticed something odd. His muscles were twitching involuntarily. His brother got him an appointment with a neurologist in Rockport, and after a series of tests, she gave him a diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Since early 2018, Smith has been writing about his challenges and become a highly visible advocate for ALS patients.
“George’s evolution has continued with his amazing courage in confronting ALS,” says Douglas Rooks, Smith’s former editor. “I don’t know anyone else who has done it that publicly.”
Smith takes it in stride. “That’s me,” he says. “I’m public. I knew it was going to be obvious to people eventually.”
As the disease has progressed, Smith has adapted. He and Linda had a graded walkway installed from their driveway to their front door. They recently picked up a wheelchair-friendly van. Still, it’s become difficult for Smith to leave the house, especially last winter, when the ice was so persistent. He’s found even places like restaurants that are supposed to be handicapped accessible aren’t easy to navigate in a wheelchair, so he rarely goes out to eat, a once-favorite pastime. He’s also noticed the dearth of handicapped-accessible trails in Maine and begun advocating for better trail access for those who are handicapped or elderly.
In May, Smith was the speaker at a community forum at Colby College, sponsored by the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal. The 180-seat auditorium was all but full as he rolled onstage in his wheelchair, looking crisp in a dark turtleneck sweater. Somehow, before the event started, the ever-garrulous Smith managed to engage the crowd in a conversation. The organizers had to take the floor back in order to formally introduce him.
In a voice that’s grown softer and huskier, Smith started off talking about ALS, explaining how he’s facing the disease with help from technology. He uses a machine that blows air into his lungs at night. He has transcription software that will allow him to dictate his columns when his hands no longer cooperate.
He continues to lose strength but remains remarkably positive. Smith said he’s heard from ALS patients from Alaska to Italy, that he enjoys talking with them and trying to help them out. But he noted that he’s recently lost much of the strength in his legs, leaving him dependent on Linda, and his wheelchair, to get around.
“It’s a frustrating illness,” he said from the stage. “You never know what’s going to happen when.”
It was a poignant moment, the crowd silent, but it didn’t last long. Soon, Smith was off to the races, his audience laughing as he spun colorful, funny, self-effacing hunting and fishing yarns gathered from a life spent outdoors in Maine. An hour later, when he was done talking, the room broke into applause, and the attendees rose to their feet. A standing ovation, with hoots. Smith smiled broadly, scanning the crowd, taking it all in from on stage.