ESCANABA - Russ Mason has held the post of Wildlife Chief for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for just about a year now and he continues to bring his experience and innovation to the forefront in tackling issues.
Last week was a prime example.
I was invited to partake in a dinner at an MDNR workshop taking place at the Clear Lake Education Center.
Clear Lake, which I believe is an old CCC camp, is located within the Hiawatha National Forest about halfway between Shingleton and Manistique.
Most of the time these meetings are held at either the Ralph A. MacMullen Center in Roscommon, or in Lansing. Mason intends on floating these workshops around the state to enable staff members to better understand what each do within their designated management territory and then network with each other to resolve local concerns.
Clear Lake was a perfect setting to talk about conservation.
There were three other media representatives invited to the dinner. Joining me that evening were Willie Peterson (Munising News), John Pepin (Marquette Mining Journal) and Buck LeVasseur (WLUC-TV's Discovering).
About 15 MDNR wildlife supervisors were present from all over the state.
We have two here in the UP. Bob Doepker handles the western UP and Terry Minzey takes care of the eastern side.
There was a mix of wildlife specialists attending the meeting as well as MDNR Commissioner John Madigan.
I wanted to get there early so that I could hear parts of what was taking place among staff and get an idea what these sessions were all about.
On my arrival the group was already in mid-discussion over a private land access issue. I was not recognized by most of the LP representatives and they seemed to become reserved in dialogue until Dr. Mason introduced me.
The agenda topic was a statewide policy or plan that had been in the process of updating and reports were requested of certain members.
I thought it a bit amusing that each presenter had a time limit in making their pitch, not far removed from what we as citizens experience when standing before the Natural Resources Commission.
They were each given more time but it was still like cramming 10 pounds of sand into a five pound pail.
While it was difficult to fully understand the topic, it did remind me how steeped we are in bureaucracy with all the acronyms being used that referred to either grant program criteria or statutory requirements of the MDNR.
As I sat in the corner of the room I noticed a flip chart that had been used when they first started the meeting. Hand written comments on the chart dealt with an outline of questions, some of which I would not expect to see.
One in particular mentioned how we hunt upland game, including grouse, and whether or not is was ethical. That caught my eye and my attention to the item caught the eye of Mason.
During one of the breaks, Mason asked me if I understood the outline? My curious and apprehensive response prompted a detailed explanation.
Before getting started earlier in the day, the mix of wildlife professionals had a brain storming session, kind of psyching themselves up with enthusiasm and direction. They were questioning themselves to assure their attitude and representative ethics were steered towards the wildlife they manage.
It reminded me of what I was taught by one of my mentors, Jim Dabb: "Always first consider what is best for the critter when dealing with conservation issues."
In essence, what I found that evening was re-assurance that the professionals within this group had as much a passion for the outdoors as any person I know. They also share our concerns, most of which came forward not during the formal work session, but after dinner in a round table closing format.
Mason and Madigan were questioned by staffers about the dwindling resources funding. "How long before we outright run out of money?", came up a couple of times.
The concern wasn't about more cuts in personnel (although it was mentioned no other reductions were scheduled in the new budget), these folks were worried about the future of conservation.
In fact I found not one negative comment circulated about the recent scheduled furlough closures of field offices. It was just something that had to be done.
Madigan again explained the dilemma regarding difficulty in the NRC taking any initiative to increase hunting, fishing or trapping license fees.
However, the issue of establishing a conservation card for those who use the natural resources for recreation, yet pay nothing directly towards availably was suggested.
In my opinion it shouldn't be promoted through the MDNR and I shared it with the staffers.
"This is something that should go to the voters of Michigan under initiative and referendum.
It should be coming from those of us in the public who pay for the privileges we now enjoy."
I came away from the night realizing the problems we encounter here in the UP are not far removed from what is being experienced statewide. They may not be exact replicas but do overlap in relation. I also felt more confident in the field leadership.
Now with the merger of the MDNR and the MDEQ, we may very well see a return to days of old where some of the leadership direction we receive is more from local level.
I know we have the staff to do it in the best interest of our natural rdesources, and they have the ability to work together for everyone in Michigan.
Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.