Troubling Precedent – MDNR Director Appointed To His Own Commission

Although we had essentially put the Northern Michigan Conservation Network site on hiatus, the news of Michigan DNR Director Creagh’s appointment to the Michigan Natural Resources Commission (NRC) and its implications on resource management in the State of Michigan are so profoundly important that we have found it necessary to make this post.

Let me begin by saying that my opposition to this appointment has no bearing on my opinion of Keith Creagh as a person. He is someone I very much like and in spite of our occasional policy differences, Keith is someone I greatly respect and admire for his intelligence, professionalism and exceptional organizational skills. It is my belief that the comments which follow would apply to any individual who sought to succeed from being the Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to its Commission. These comments are also applicable regardless of outgoing, or incoming, political parties.

Conflict of Interest – Beyond the conflict of interest which currently exists in his role as Director and Commission Appointee, a continued level of conflict is inherent beyond his tenure as Director. Even if we assume that no direct conflict will exist in the next professional position held by an outgoing Director, no other citizen would likely be appointed as a member of the NRC without their resume including their specific occupation or place of employment as a part of the due diligence by an Appointments Secretary. To my knowledge, neither the timing of his departure nor occupational information which will be in effect at the time of becoming an NRC member has been publicly disclosed. We do know that in this case, the outgoing DNR Director will have also served as Director of both the Department of Agriculture and Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and continues to serve as a member of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board, the totality of which should, in itself, be disqualifying for a citizen-commission of this type.

DNR Personnel Implications – Although the potential conflicts are nearly limitless, what is perhaps the most troubling is the possible legal implications associated with DNR staff and personnel information. The DNR Director is appropriately privy to otherwise confidential personnel information and matters which would not be shared with NRC members. This “firewall” between DNR personnel matters and a publicly-appointed commission exists for a reason. One can only imagine the additional level of consideration which may go into a DNR staff recommendation to the NRC which could be in conflict with the known view of a former Director. The potential fear of going against the wishes of an NRC member for personal or past-relationship reasons would undermine the independence of not only Division Chiefs, but possibly field personnel, as well.

NRC Dynamic – Any Committee, Commission or Board develops a functional and leadership dynamic over time. The effectiveness of such entities is dependent on the interaction of its members who have typically entered these positions with a similar status. The potential disruption to these organic relationships which could be caused by the insertion of an individual who had previously served as its lead advisor could be significant. How can Commissioners be expected to transition from routinely accepting the advice and counsel of the former Director, to now view him as an equal counterpart-Commissioner? The old adage that “knowledge is power” is very applicable to this situation. As future NRC policy matters are considered, the greater level of “knowledge” possessed by the former DNR Director runs the risk of disrupting what would otherwise be a debate among informational equals.

Future DNR Director – The position of Director of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources has historically been coveted among natural resource professionals nationwide. The prospect of working for, and with, a Commission which includes its most recent Director may well be disqualifying for many potential applicants. Who among us would welcome the opportunity to accept a new professional position with the knowledge that the last person who held the job would now be sitting in direct judgement of one’s performance? This may also have the effect of attracting only those applicants who were supportive of past administrative policy in an effort to avoid the inevitable conflicts associated with the direct interaction with the prior Director.

As past policy and Director’s Orders are reviewed, the ability of a new Director to objectively consider, change or reject these decisions is likely to be further complicated by a Commission position being held by the preceding Director. There would be a natural reluctance to make substantive policy changes for fear of not only disagreement with a former Director, but also out of concern for disrupting his, or her, relationship with a Commission which had largely been appointed with the approval of this predecessor.

Memorializing the Politicization of Resource Management – Although we are only a generation removed from a time when the Natural Resources Commission hired its own Director and was not a political-appointee, we find ourselves in a time when politics and natural resource management are inextricably linked. Historically, the lone consolation to this trend is that it does leave open the possibility that through the voice of people, elections and legislative process, agency leadership and policy perspectives can shift with this public will.  As previously discussed, the effectiveness of the successor DNR Director is likely to be severely compromised if he, or she, has to work in fear of a Commission which has its legacy tied to the prior Director and administration.

Since so many of these issues and concerns are mind-numbingly obvious, one cannot help but think that this appointment decision was not a clumsy political oversight, but a carefully considered attempt to make policy decisions more difficult to amend or rescind. Whether you mostly like what any one set of department leaders did during their time or not, we should all be troubled by the creation of a precedent which seeks to expand the politicization of natural resource management.

Because of the duality of these positions of power which will be held in the interim (Director and future NRC member), it is imperative that the opposition to this appointment be articulated by no one or two individuals. This opposition should be conveyed by a coalition of people and organizations who reflect a broad base of resource management perspectives. I would urge the full compliment of conservation and hunter/angler organizations to form a coalition, or organize a letter sign-on effort which seeks to oppose this appointment. If successful, such an effort would not only stop what most see as a dangerous precedent, but would discourage future attempts to circumvent what should otherwise be a healthy succession of agency leadership.

Paul A. Rose

About Northern Michigan Conservation Network

The mission of the Northern Michigan Conservation Network is to "connect conservation-minded hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts to those issues affecting Michigan's forests, waters, and wildlife."

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