Freeing Conservation from Politics: Early Years of the Natural Resources Commission

This is the first in a series of blogs covering the history, purpose and process of the Natural Resources Commission. Senate Bill 288 shares the Legislature’s authority to designate game species with the Natural Resources Commission, which was created to separate conservation from politics in 1921 and mandated to use sound science by 1996's Proposal G.
Michigan’s first fish and game laws were enacted in 1859. At the time, market hunting was still legal, and with no one to enforce them, regulations were largely ignored. In 1873, the Board of Fisheries Commissioners was created to set and manage Michigan’s fishing regulations. And in 1875, ten conservation clubs united to form the Michigan Sportsmen’s Association, which tried to enforce regulations on a volunteer basis. In 1883, they proposed legislation creating a state game warden, but it was defeated.
In 1885, they tried it again, and this time proposed that the game warden be appointed by a commission to make the position immune from political pressure, but that was also defeated. The state finally passed legislation to hire its first game warden in 1887. The position would be appointed by the governor.
In the early 1900’s, fish and game management was divided between the game warden’s office and the Board of Fisheries Commissioners.  In 1904, the Michigan Audubon Society proposed the creation of a three-person commission to replace the game warden, so as to be less immune to political pressure. In 1910, William B. Mershon, one of the state’s early conservation leaders, proposed the creation of a five-member commission, appointed by the governor, to manage fish and wildlife species. His purpose was also to separate conservation from political pressures.
Finally, in 1921, the Michigan Department of Conservation was created, into which merged the game warden, the Board of Fisheries Commissioners, the Forestry Commission and the Parks Commission. Harold “Opie” Titus helped convince Governor Fred Green that the new Michigan Department of Conservation would be governed by a bipartisan seven-member Conservation Commission. These would later become the Department of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Commission. Titus would later be named to the Conservation Commission and helped develop the modern creel census.
In the 1920’s, conservationist and writer James Oliver Curwood advocated for the separation of conservation from politics. One of his criticisms was that the governor had too much control over the Conservation Commission and the director of the department. In 1929, the Commission moved to staggered terms for its commissioners, so that no one governor could stack it with political cronies. It has served staggered terms ever since. At the same time, the Legislature gave it the authority to appoint the director of the Department of Conservation, once again to separate conservation from politics.
In Dave Dempsey’s book Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader, he writes about how the separation of conservation and politics and the use of science earned Michigan national praise. In 1928, toward the end of the first decade of management by the Conservation Commission, Aldo Leopold praised the state’s natural resources management: “Leopold also had favorable words for the state’s use of research to guide its game administration,” wrote Dempsey.
When legislators introduced a bill in 1933 to abolish the Conservation Commission and restore the governor’s authority to appoint the director of the Department of Conservation, outdoor writer Ben East rallied hunters and anglers from around the state to defeat it. Legislators tried again to remove authority from the commission to appoint the director in 1937, when East and conservationist Harry Gaines rallied 20 sportsmen’s clubs to defeat the bill.
The clubs they united to protect the authority of the Conservation Commission decided to form a permanent watchdog organization to keep politics out of conservation decisions (the Michigan Sportsmen's Association had ceased to be a powerful voice decades earlier). Gaines, Paul Herbert (who also helped found the National Wildlife Federation) and representatives from 35 sportsmen’s clubs from around the state met on Nov. 9, 1937 and founded Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

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