You need to know how to manage natural resources in order to appreciate them

ESCANABA — I sometimes go back into the archives to see what was in the news regarding conservation at certain points in time.

Just over a decade ago, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) was in the throws of controversy having attempted to raise the hunting and fishing license fees for the first time since 1996. The process came to a grinding stop once it became known that the state’s fish and game fund had a surplus of nearly $10 million. It didn’t mean they had a stash of hidden cash, it was a fund balance that had been in place for years to be used for special non-anticipated instances, a good business practice. Their projected annual budgets forcasted a trend that before long, the cost of doing the business of the MDNR would soon exceed their income.

Exactly 10 years ago, the dust had settled and the MDNR was in the damage control mode. They re-examined themselves and changed the model of operations in a public mandate to be more transparent. It required more public involvement, local autonomy in the decision making process and less bureaucracy in Lansing.

On Feb. 8, 2008, I opened my column by stating: “The time has come to move forward and save the future of conservation in Michigan, and in particular, the Upper Peninsula. It is also a time to reduce the involvement of government and inrease public participation. It will not be accomplished by creating more dissent.”

Things did change and the MDNR has toned down the central control to allow for regionalization of their field operations. Getting stakeholders involved has been a key point in accomplishing the task and the public did accept an increase in not only the license fees charged for hunting and fishing, other recreational disciplines have also endorsed fee adjustments for what the pay to play, provided the satisfaction and return on investment on what they are paying is evident.

In 2012 there was a change in the MDNR administration. Former Director Rebecca Humphries retired and took a position with Ducks Unlimited (DU) as a regional director. Since then, she was recruited by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and is now the Chief Operating Officer (CEO) of that conservation group. Shortly after her departure, Keith Creagh took over the MDNR director’s post.

According to the MDNR, “With an extensive background in policy development, strategic planning and relationship building – and a lifelong love of hunting, fishing, camping and hiking – Keith Creagh brings plenty of experience and insight to his position as director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Prior to his July 2012 appointment by Gov. Rick Snyder, Creagh had been serving as director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), a position he had held since Jan. 1, 2011.

Creagh’s state government service started in 1974. He’s tackled a wide range of MDARD positions during that tenure, including chief deputy director (covering administration, legislative, policy at both state and federal level), land use deputy director (with both MDARD and the DNR), where he coordinated a multi-agency implementation plan in response to the recommendations from the governor-appointed Michigan Land Use Leadership Council. He also provided leadership for the Farm Bill and conservation programs, bringing together conservation organizations, state and federal agencies and local conservation districts to establish conservation practices in the state.”

Creagh was able to complete turning the corner in the working relationship between the end users of our natural resources and the department with most influence on his commitment to use those funds to provide “boots on the ground, feet in the forest and waders in the water.”

It was a selling point of public involvement and a return on investment that stakeholders had not believed possible. Ten years later, we’ve shown some great positive strides but there appears to be a change in direction, not from the administration side, instead from the public sector. There is a growning segment of users becoming apathetic and taking for granted the access and opportunities in outdoors recreation.

That public/private partnership is showing preliminary signs of failure. The core groups that got involved in making changes in the business model of the MDNR continue their efforts today. The problem is that when you look across the table, those leading the volunteer organizations are aging, some being involved for more than three decades. While there has been some gains in recruiting and retention in most recreational disciplines, the support groups are having a hard time filling those slots on the boards of the conservation clubs and provide a more contemporary approach to modern day issues. Moreover, when I attend the myriad of conservation related meetings, I see hands go up and questions being asked that people of my vintage and involvement already know the answers.

Why is that?

Our biggest competitor, I believe, is how society has changed to more of an instant gratification perspective. They don’t want to take the time to learn the fundemental needs and necessary resolve when difficulties occur. If it isn’t part of an application that can be instantly downloaded, they don’t have the patience to learn and then implement corrective measures. We seem to have lost the vision to look towards the future and establish long term goals.

With all the new problems facing conservation, if we don’t partner better with our youth, perhaps the natural resources experience will rely more on a program video of virtual reality than what would be gained in an actual day outdoors.

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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.