New Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Eichinger assumed his appointment on January 1. Many in the conservation community have asked what his priorities will be, and Michigan Out-of-Doors Editor Nick Green sat down with Eichinger for a question-and-answer session to find out. Portions of the original interview have been omitted to meet space constraints.
*Photos provided courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Q: With a background in the hunting and fishing world, and seeing firsthand the decline in participants, how do you plan to address the decline of license buyers that is projected for the foreseeable future?
A: There are some actions that we can take short-term and some longer-term actions that we need to be thinking about. Recruitment, retention and reactivation activities are all resource-hungry and take a lot of time.
You know as well as I do that it takes a lot of effort to make a new hunter — whole cloth, out of thin air. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do those things, we just have to recognize that the timescale where those efforts are actually going to bear fruit isn’t immediate.
In the short-term, we have to flatten that decline out and then reverse that trend so that we are growing. The primary way we can do that is to try and position Michigan more as a destination state for non-resident hunters and anglers to come here, spend their license dollars here, stay in motels, buy gas and buy meals here.
As a state, we haven’t historically performed well in attracting non-resident license buyers. Yet, we have world-class fisheries and we have world-class hunting opportunities. We have more North American woodcock in Michigan than any other place on the planet. We have great grouse hunting, great waterfowling opportunities, and despite what some folks might say, we do have some spots in the state that are pretty darn good for deer hunting.
Part of what I think we need to do is steer some of the focus that we have in our marketing and outreach division beyond the borders of the state and start telling our story to those who aren’t in Michigan. Our management actions have to reflect that, too. We have to think about how we are managing public land and what opportunities we are providing for non-residents to come into this state.
Q: Now that the baiting ban is in effect, do you expect an even more exaggerated decline in license buyers and, more specifically, deer hunting licenses as a result of the baiting ban?
A: It’s tough to say. I don’t know that I am anticipating that. I don’t know what the causal relationship would be there. We have had baiting and feeding bans before in the Lower Peninsula. In 2008, we had a baiting and feeding ban that was in place until 2010. We experienced declines in hunters right alongside that. I certainly think that it is something for us to be sensitive to. We also have to think about things long-term. The unanimous recommendation from the science community, our biologists and biologists across the country is that when you’re confronting a wildlife disease issue like we are in Michigan, then you have to call a timeout on baiting and feeding.
I’m sure that as we understand more of what the footprint of this disease is, we will likely start to tailor our management response based on what we have learned. I’m sure in the future, the Natural Resources Commission will be compelled to revisit the baiting and feeding ban, and at that point in time, we will make an assessment about where we are with disease and how the hunting community has responded to that. All of those things will go into the decision making that the commission uses when they revisit baiting and feeding.
Q: With consumptive and non-consumptive users often at odds with management strategies and decisions and contentious issues like funding, resource use and crowding becoming more common in Michigan, how do you see the department bridging the gap between user groups? Are there common issues to rally everyone together and build support and understanding between groups?
A: There is a ton of common ground there. Regardless of how you engage with nature or how you do outdoor recreation, generally speaking, everyone believes in having abundant, well-managed wildlife species, everyone cares about clean water and everyone cares about having good, rich, well-managed ecological habitat complexes.
So at that level, I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between someone who likes to hunt and someone who only likes to mountain bike, hike or canoe.
The conflicts occur when we don’t do a very good job of situating all of those uses on the landscape. And we have seen instances where we’ve seen encroachment on hunting land from non-consumptive users, and that’s a problem.
Those are things we should be able to avoid. We have 4.6 million acres of public land, and it should be relatively easy for us to look over the horizon and plan the development of recreational assets like trails. We should be able to situate all those uses in a compatible way.
The other thing we have to be faithful to when managing a piece of property is what the fund source was to originally acquire that property. And whether folks like it or not, there is a hierarchy in that. The hierarchy for license-purchased and license-managed lands is for fish and wildlife and fish- and wildlife-dependent recreation. It doesn’t mean other things can’t happen on that property, but the dominant use has to be for fish and wildlife. But there are millions of acres of public land that don’t have that same hierarchy of use because of the fund source.
I think in terms of managing conflict, it means that within our divisions we need to do a little more talking together. There are goals that each division has and each may at times swerve out of their lane a little bit and get into an area that is managed or secured for a different purpose. And that really falls on us as a department to do a better job ensuring that kind of thing doesn’t happen.
Q: What are your big-picture plans for Michigan’s state park system?
A: The state park system is going to turn 100 this year. The cool thing is we have a 100-year birthday for our state park system; the bad thing is we have a 100-year-old state park system.
We have done a really good job of responding to a growing need and demand for additional facilities. Our objective in the short-term needs to be on ensuring that all the infrastructure and parks we already have are well-maintained and being taken care of. We are not in the position financially to both grow and take care of the infrastructure we have.
My interest right now is taking care of some of those legacy issues in some of our biggest state parks and at some of those state parks that are hidden gems out there. The infrastructure needs we have cut across all types of state parks and all types of recreation areas. We really need to focus on that.
We have something like a $273-million backlog in capital infrastructure needs, and we don’t have any idea how we are going to pay for that. We can do some of that through the traditional capital outlay process. But before we start thinking about adding new state parks or facilities onto the landscape, we have to really stop and think hard about how the system we currently have is going to viable for the next 100 years.
Q: As CWD continues to become more contentious, how does the department plan to retain and, in some cases, regain the trust of some Michigan hunters? You know as well as I do, from your former job, there can sometimes be a lot of distrust in the department. As the director, how do you plan to address that in regards to CWD?
A: One of the most important things we can do is be as open and transparent about the data and the information and the analysis that is informing a decision. If all anybody sees is the outcome of a decision that is made without seeing some of the data or working through and struggling with some of the information like we do, I get that it can cause a lot of question and skepticism about the quality of the decision that was made.
I’m not pollyanna enough to think that if everybody can see all the surveillance and can look over Dr. Straka’s shoulder in the disease lab, that there all of sudden just going to say, “we are going to do whatever you want DNR.” But as public servants, we have a responsibility to show as much of that work as we can.
I think the other thing is that CWD is a disease that has been identified for the last 50 years, but there is still a lot we don’t know about the disease. One of the things I struggle with, I know our staff struggles with and the hunting public struggles with is that it would be really great if I could write a prescription and say, “take two of these and everything would be fine.” That’s not this disease.
We are learning on the fly. And we are managing this disease on the fly. That isn’t to say that things are being done haphazardly, but it means that every day that we deal with this disease our understanding of it and the management actions reflective of that understanting deepens a little bit. That should change and inform what our management is. There isn’t going to be an easy way to deal with this.
People have very strong feelings about deer and deer management in the state, and they all have their informed opinions about what is right and what isn’t right. I think people are mindful of the uncertainty with this disease. At the end of the day, everybody, regardless of how they think this disease should be managed, is in agreement and understands that we are all concerned about the health and long-term viability of our deer herd.
And if that means we have to work through these issues and answer tough questions, that is perfectly acceptable. It demonstrates to me that people have a real vested interest in deer and deer hunting in this state.
Q: As PFAs and the issues surrounding it continue to affect our natural resources, how do you see the department interacting with other state and federal agencies to address the problem?
A: The first concern for all of us is the potential impact that PFAs has on human health and safety. In priority order, human health and safety is the primary concern as it relates to PFAs or any other environmental contaminant like that. Where the department plays an important role is examining the different vectors like groundwater and fish and wildlife that move the contaminant around.
To the extent that our fish and wildlife resources are concerned about PFAs, there isn’t another governmental agency that has that responsibility to bear. We have staff that have been leading the technical workgroups that relate to the state’s response regarding fish and wildlife. And I fully expect we will maintain that role and we will help inform and engage on decisions that directly affect our fish, wildlife and natural resources.
Q: The managed land strategy was finally adopted after several years of discussion amongst the legislature. How will the department help to educate new and returning lawmakers and the general public about the value of public lands?
A: One of the first lessons is that we are never done trying to help educate people about the value of public lands. That is never a destination we are going to get to. We should always feel that sense of urgency to communicate to lawmakers and the public about the value of public land.
I think through the managed land strategy, and the things we have learned over the last number of years, is that the department hasn’t always been a great neighbor with local units of government. And I give a lot of credit to former DNR Director Creigh for recognizing that behavioral deficiency in the department and that we needed to do a better job talking to counties and townships about land-management decisions.
I think there has been a lot of progress made by sitting down and having those conversations. We have engaged very openly about what our objectives are and how those fit in with county master plans and township master planning. And we weren’t having that conversation for a long time.
At the end of the day, the real questions are what are we doing with the stuff that we have? Are we putting absolutely the best management on the ground that we can in all area? For example, are we supporting active timber management in areas to support not just the economy, but the species that thrive from that practice? You and I both know as grouse and woodcock hunters that early-successional forest habitat happens at the end of a chainsaw, and we have to be mindful of those types of things when we look at the management of our natural resources as a whole.
I think what people want to see is that we are committed to good habitat management, that it is well-planned, that it is facilitating the outdoor-based economy, it’s meeting our fish and wildlife management objectives and is providing a playground for people.
Q: What is the legacy you hope to leave on the department and our natural resources for your kids and their kids?
A: I want to finish the job on Asian carp. We are getting close to an inflection point of whether we are actually going to do something or not. I want to make sure that we are going to score the touchdown this time. I want to make sure we are going to get infrastructure on the ground to stop invasive carp from moving into our Great Lakes and connecting waterways.
I want to be able to say that we have tackled that infrastructural backlog in our state park system. At some point, we are going to reach a point where we end up crushing that system because we have so much stuff that is breaking at such a rate that we can’t sustain it. That’s not really sexy work, but that’s something that has to get done. It has to get done; it has to be wrestled to the ground. If we just leave that item on the table because it’s too hard, it’s too complex or whatever it is, then I am not really doing my job and we as a department are not really doing our job of stewarding that system into the next 20, 30 and 50 years.
And then the third thing I would like us to really make some strong strides towards is trying to making hunting and angling more open and more welcoming to everyone in order to help reverse this decline of license sales. There is a lot of work for us to do on that front. That, to me, if you want to talk about something that is a real legacy issue, is meaningful work. We need to make sure that hunting and fishing are as accessible and available to as many of Michigan’s residents as we can. That would be a pretty good day’s work.