Column: The Upper Peninsula and the NRC

ESCANABA — There is more impact to the loss of John Matonich as a member of the Michigan Natural Resources Commission (NRC) than the fact that he was very good at his post, John was, at a point in time, one of three Yoopers seated on the NRC when there had previously been some polarization between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan.

In 2000, a caravan of conservationists traveled to East Tawas to attend an NRC meeting. A key topic on the agenda was whether or not to shut down baiting and feeding of deer statewide due to the high prevalence of bovine tuberculosis in the northern L.P. Back then we did have a homeland representative, Nancy Douglas – Menominee, who was on the NRC, but we did not have her cofindence that the U.P. should not be considered in the ban given the extreme winter conditions in the deep snowfall zone and that a program initiated through UP Whitetails Association, Inc., for emergency supplemental feeding that had been endorsed by local biologists.

We achieved a “stay of execution” for one year, time given to develop and pursue a plan of natural sustainability for the long term through improved winter yarding habitat projects. That work continues today and has shown progression, especially in the last several years, again due to the involvement of NRC members from the U.P.

In 2002, Michigan was dealing a newly negotiated fishing treaty, as well as a new governor, John Engler. He had an NRC appointee concerned about the mechanics of the treaty that was settling in to see what the Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) was all about.

John Madigan – Munising, a local businessman and avid fisherman admitted to me once that he had his doubts as to the credibility of the MDNR. After a few years on the NRC, he told me he had grown to respect most everyone within the department, but did see instances where the U.P. didn’t seem to get equal attention and/or consideration when it came to conservation issues. John went on to serve nearly three terms on the NRC, not often seen as the standards tenure has mostly been two terms and out.

Governor Jennifer Granholm was next elected and added another Yooper to the NRC with the appointment of JR Richardson – Ontonogan in 2007. The duo teamed up as solid advocates of conservation with the U.P. perspective. The U.P. had solid footing and focus thanks to a proven team effort through Madigan and Richardson.

Three years later, Granholm added the third component to having the strongest representative force from the U.P. ever seen with the appointment of the highly credentialed John Matonich – Marenisco. At the time he was technically living in Saginaw but had been born and raised in Gogebic County and since retirement from his original profession had moved back to his residence on Lake Gogebic.

Matonich transitioned rapidly into the system of natural resources management through the MDNR and like Madigan and Richardson grew to appreciate the staff within the department but also provided a conduit to assure the UP received equal and appropriate attention on issues presented.

At one point, partisan politics stood to break up the strengthened U.P. representation on the NRC when, in late 2010, then Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop sought to block appointments and re-appointments being made by the outgoing Governor Jennifer Granholm, even those having been appointed as Republicans in a Democrat administration. U.P. residents and legislators intervened and stopped the process. Madigan did leave prior to completion of his third term but the combined positive effect of the U.P. representatives was reflected once by former Commissioner Hurley Coleman Jr., of Saginaw, who sited both Madigan and Richardson for their expertise regarding resources issues in the Upper Peninsula and how he relied on both gentlemen for their depth of knowledge and individual efforts in conservation.

The 15 years of having at least two U.P. residents on the NRC paved a way to a long term smooth working relationship with the MDNR, bringing greater transparency and resolve to issues at home. We’ve been left with the feeling that all is well on the northern front, that is perhaps until now.

With the departure of Matonich, Governor Snyder has appointed a new member to the NRC by the name of John Walters of mid-Michigan. He has worked in the forest products industry for more than 30 years, previously served on the Natural Resources Advisory Council for the Office of Regulatory Reinvention, is past Chairman of Michigan Trout Unlimited and past Chairman of the Pigeon River Country State Forest – Advisory Council. He loves to fly fish for trout year around, but can also be found in the woods hunting upland birds and deer. He will represent independents.

JR Richardson’s term on the NRC expires Dec. 31, 2018, and is now the only Yooper seated on the Commission. He will have a challenge in distinguishing if need differences between the U.P. and L.P. management policy exists.

The first challenge he’ll face is the soon to be released final report and recommendations from the Michigan Chronic Wasting Disease Task Force. It is speculated that there will be a move to once again ban all bating and feeding of deer statewide, much like that done when bovine tuberculosis was high profile. Conservation organizations are already networking to align sides as the issue breaks out. While Richardson has clearly demonstrated a history of voting based on science models, the basis of the science will be at the heart of the debate and when you’re seated as one of seven, getting the point across regarding the unique needs of the U.P. may just be history repeating itself from what we saw in 2000.

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Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Trails & Tales Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.