On Monday morning, in a move that likely surprised many of the organization’s 12,000 members, Matt Dunlap took over as the interim executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
Tim Bell, who took that job in October as the replacement to the longtime public face of SAM, George Smith, was out.
Dunlap was in.
And although the timing was admittedly a bit odd — Bell was released from duty just as the new legislative session is ramping up — concerned outdoors enthusiasts need not worry.
In Dunlap, a former legislator and secretary of state, SAM got the right guy, for the right job, at the right time.
From the beginning, Bell seemed like an odd fit for the group that bills itself as the most influential sportsman’s organization in the state.
Bell was an outsider who moved to Maine from Florida. He wasn’t a fisherman. He didn’t hunt.
He may have learned his way around the Augusta labyrinth, and may have turned out to be a solid lobbyist for sportsmen’s interests.
But that wasn’t in the cards.
Dunlap was a member of the SAM board of directors that hired Bell. He resigned from the board before the decision was made to fire Bell, and did not lobby for the interim post, he said.
Dunlap said that during discussions that took place when he was still on the board, it became apparent that SAM board members wanted results from Bell — and they wanted those results quickly.
“Finding somebody who understands the legislative process, somebody who understands how you get stuff done in Augusta, someone who can actually run the organization, handle the finances of it, provide those types of service to the members and do it a very dedicated way — it turned out to be a much taller order than we had originally surmised,” Dunlap said on Thursday, his fourth official day on the job.
“Tim had all the right skill sets, he interviewed very well and we brought him on for a probationary period, and there were some things that had to be done and delivered,” Dunlap said. “I think, really, the board just wanted to see that original charge fulfilled and they felt they weren’t getting there in the time frame they wanted.”
SAM’s board of directors, Dunlap explained, wanted to hire an executive director who would return to a once-successful SAM model.
“Let’s be a true member organization, the way that we started out as, and service the guys in the flannel shirts and orange hats that take their kids fishing on weekends when they get a chance,” Dunlap said, explaining the basic philosophy.
In order to re-emphasize that grass-roots approach, certain things have to happen, Dunlap said.
“You can’t do it remotely. You can’t simply build up an e-mail list. You’ve got to go talk to people. You’ve got to go to the sportsman’s shows, the sportsman’s clubs, the coffee counters. You’ve got to be visible and known. You’ve got to communicate,” he said.
And that’s what Dunlap will do.
He’ll also be in SAM’s Augusta office, answering phones and providing members the service they deserve.
That, Dunlap said, is important.
On Thursday, a call to Dunlap bounced to voicemail. Later, he explained that a SAM member had been on the other line, looking for information about a gun safety course.
“He got me. I’m going to look up the answer for him. And that’s what the executive director is really supposed to be here for, in the view of the board: To service members,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap is a consensus-builder. He’s a passionate conservationist who helped found Maine’s Youth Fish and Game Association, and a savvy politician who illustrated a knack for finding common ground during his tenure as a state representative. He’s outgoing and smart and funny.
And (to many, this is the most important part) he’s not George Smith.
While Smith got results, he ruffled more than a few feathers during his 18-year reign as SAM’s top man.
Dunlap has worked closely with Smith over the years, and knows him well. And Dunlap said, as tactfully as possible, that things at SAM will be a little different in the coming months.
“The people that I’m going to be dealing with know who I am. They know who George is. And they know the difference,” Dunlap said. “George is very, very effective. He certainly had his way of doing things.
“I was pretty effective when I was dealing with fish and wildlife policy in the legislature,” Dunlap continued. “I had a somewhat different way of doing things, and people know that.”

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...