Rowing against a stiff wind on a small Upper Peninsula pond, J.R. Richardson (James Robert, officially; Jimmy to his long-time friends) works to position the small boat so he can cast his lure, hoping to connect with a native brook trout – his preferred quarry in a region of the state rife with fur, feathers and fins.
“This is fun,” said Richardson, putting some elbow grease behind the oars. “It makes me feel like a kid; brings back good memories of my first experience backcountry fishing with my dad at Mirror Lake in the Porkies. I like anything that makes me feel like a kid again.”
It’s a common theme that Richardson returns to often when he describes how he wound up as chairman of Michigan’s Natural Resources Commission, the board that sets state hunting regulations in cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources.
“It was all about canoeing and fishing and grouse hunting when I was a kid,” he said. “We did lots and lots of brook trout fishing. And walleye fishing. And panfishing. We’d go every day.”
Born in the small village of White Pine, Richardson’s spent his whole life—except for his years at not-so-distant Michigan Technological University – in the western Upper Peninsula’s Ontonagon County. And as he tells it, he never wanted to live anywhere else.
“I’m the poorest chemical engineer in the country,” he said. “But I’m not leaving Ontonagon.”
It’s a pretty weighty statement, considering he’s visited plenty of other beautiful regions in the U.S. known for their hunting and fishing opportunities as well.
“I learned fly fishing going to Montana to visit my uncle and cousin out West; I’ve gone to Alaska and New Zealand a number of times to chase trout and salmon,” he said. “I’ve fly fished ever since I could hold a rod. I’ve covered a lot of the world with a fly rod in my hand.”
But Ontonagon County and Michigan have a firm hold on him. And though he is in many ways a traditional Michigan sportsman, too – he won the local big buck contest last year and the year before came in second – he identifies himself first as an angler.
“Personally, I’d rather go fishing than deer hunting,” he said. “I have a passion for all of it. But if it came down to going after a big brookie sitting in the river or a nice buck in the field…I’d go catch the trout.”
When it does come time to hit the woods, Richardson puts a priority on putting some partridge (the local vernacular for ruffed grouse) in his game bag, though he does hunt waterfowl as well.
“We bird hunt 30 times a year, I’d say. My food chain is partridge, brook trout, walleye. We’re fortunate to be able to eat a lot of things that we harvest.”
Enjoying and promoting the state’s natural resources is important to Richardson, and when he was asked several years ago to consider taking a seat on the NRC, he accepted the challenge. Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed Richardson to the NRC in April 2007.
By that time, Richardson had established himself as a local conservation activist. He’d befriended local DNR staffers and was heavily involved in volunteer work, which led to him receiving a Partner in Conservation Award from the DNR and the Department of Environmental Quality in 1993.
“We, the NRC and the DNR, talk a lot about partnerships,” Richardson said. “That’s one of our big priorities. Back when I first started out, the process for volunteering with the DNR was really difficult. Now that’s fixed. My local sportsmen’s club, we built our own walleye rearing pond. It took a lot of energy from our members and very little time from the state. Rather than putting a burden on the state, it’s now on us to grow and stock the fish.”
“If you have a passion for conservation work, volunteering with the DNR is a pretty good opportunity to get things done.”
A former union paper mill worker – who almost reluctantly went to college because of the unrelenting encouragement of a former chemistry teacher – Richardson went on to become an engineer and manager in the industry. He has also taken the time to invest in his community, previously serving as an assistant high school football coach, volunteer fireman, president of the Upper Peninsula Sport Fishermen’s Association, and as a member of the Ontonagon Village Council for eight years.
In December 2012, Richardson became chairman of the NRC. One of his missions has been responding to and preparing for changes in the hunting and fishing community – some which are already occurring.
“You have to spend a lot more time and energy reaching out to get the kids interested in spending time in the out-of-doors these days,” he said. “The kids are obviously our future. If we can’t figure out how to get kids out in the woods, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.”
In response to these changes, Richardson helped spur the creation of the Family Friendly Fishing Waters program and the NRC’s new Youth Advisory Council — initiatives designed to make it easier for youngsters to get involved and invested in the outdoors and conservation.
But, Richardson said, he has to make sure the foundation of Michigan’s hunting and fishing heritage is there in the future, too.
“We have to keep working on the financing,” he said. “What is the long-term plan for hatcheries, for habitat? How are we going to ensure that in 40 or 50 years, we’ve left the state in a position that it’s financially secure so they can worry about the biology, not the financing?”
One of Richardson’s most recent missions is starting a Habitat Work Group in the Upper Peninsula to make sure the land can continue to produce its bounty.
“You want to work on the things that you have some control over and habitat is one of those things,” he said. “There’s a lot of land that will be just fine, but there’s a lot that, if we don’t treat it carefully, will go away. That’d be a huge disservice to our resources. The back-to-back hard winters and the impact on the deer herd just show you how critical habitat is.”
“We’ve worked to get the right folks on the new Habitat Work Group to help us prioritize deer habitat improvements and I think we’ve got the right mix – the DNR, the Feds, and the big private landowners, like the timber companies. With them, we can start to use the knowledge and data we already have to get in the best position to manage the resources cooperatively across property lines. We’re definitely on the right track.”
Another priority for Richardson is finding ways that the NRC can help the state flourish economically as well.
“Why should people harvest the trees then take them to out-of-state lumber mills and make all the money there? We can utilize our renewable resources in an environmentally friendly way and have a good business environment here, too. When you realize that youngsters can’t stay up here anymore because there aren’t any jobs, we’re remiss if we don’t try to find ways to put these resources to work.”
Richardson considers himself somewhat of an outlier in his willingness to take on these issues.
“It’s not second-nature to most Yoopers to be in the bureaucratic world,” he said. “But if you want to see things done the way you envision, you have to be involved. My experience on the NRC has been really positive. I think the locals appreciate having me act as their voice on the commission.”
And the relationship is circular, as Richardson is able to also serve as the voice of the DNR in his part of the state, which geographically is as far away as one can get from Lansing without crossing the state line.
“What some people I talk to don’t realize is that the folks who work for the DNR have a true passion for the outdoors and that they put management of the resource first,” he said. “As a member of the NRC, I can reassure skeptics that the science-based approach to management works and has done a lot of good things for this state.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to see it firsthand,” he said while continuing to cast his line around that small Upper Peninsula trout pond. “I’m a believer.”
To learn more about the state’s Natural Resources Commission, visit www.michigan.gov/nrc.