Au Sable River photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Managing one of the oldest agencies in Michigan state government is the job of the youngest person ever appointed as its director. Dan Eichinger was 37 when Governor Gretchen Whitmer appointed him in 2019 to run the 101-year-old Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which was originally called the Department of Conservation.
Eichinger, however, had plenty of natural resources experience before Gov. Whitmer appointed him to the DNR’s top spot. Eichinger had served as the executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, in a number of other roles in the DNR, and was a policy advisor to then Lt. Gov. John D. Cherry, Jr., in the administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
“We can do important things as a forest landowner,” Eichinger said. “We can manage our forests to increase the storage of carbon and to promote resiliency.”
FLOW asked Eichinger to discuss what he regards as his most important accomplishments and the biggest challenges facing the DNR, which manages the state’s fish and wildlife, state parks, state forests, and more. Not surprisingly, climate change policy figures in both what’s been done and what’s yet to be tackled.
The DNR chief said he is pleased with his department’s response to climate challenges through public lands management, a role he says was given to the department by Gov. Whitmer. Eichinger pointed out that controlling the emissions that contribute to climate change is the responsibility of the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“But we can do important things as a forest landowner, for example,” Eichinger said. DNR is steward of approximately four million acres of public forest land. “We can manage our forests to increase the storage of carbon and to promote resiliency.”
Another climate response the director has initiated is an effort to address the threat warming temperatures pose to prize cold water streams like the Au Sable River, an internationally renowned trout fishery. A team of Michigan State University scientists and interested stakeholders from the public is developing a strategy for protecting the cold groundwater flow that is critical to trout.
“We need to protect our aquifer-driven cold-water streams,” Eichinger said. DNR can also protect the Au Sable and its counterparts by managing riparian forests to offer canopy that keeps waters cool.
“It’s not the Department of Natural Resources that our fish and wildlife and water and other resources belong to, it’s the public,” Eichinger said. “Our job as trustee of those resources is to protect them for the public, today and tomorrow. It’s a democratic, principled approach.”
The initiative is a “beta trial” for other Michigan rivers, which deserve more attention, the DNR director says. “We’re a state of great rivers,” he says. “People in Michigan connect more on a daily basis with rivers than the Great Lakes.”
A related challenge to DNR, Eichinger said, is the pace at which threats to the health of natural resources is multiplying, from newly arrived aquatic invasive species like rock snot to terrestrial issues like tree blight. “There’s a matrix of threats, and we will have to be adept at responding.”
One tool in the resource protection fight is the public trust doctrine, Eichinger said. “It’s not the Department of Natural Resources that our fish and wildlife and water and other resources belong to, it’s the public. Our job as trustee of those resources is to protect them for the public, today and tomorrow. It’s a democratic, principled approach.”
A long-range opportunity for the DNR is the proposed Recovering America’s Wildlife Act in Congress, which would provide continuing federal funding for the agency and its counterparts in other states to protect and manage nongame species.
“We haven’t been able to do as much as we’d like because unlike fish and game species, there are no real funding sources to pay for nongame protection,” Eichinger said. “Protection of nongame species has co-benefits for fish and game species.”
Despite the threats, Eichinger is optimistic about the future of Michigan’s natural resources. “The public support we need is there. If we continue to act on it, we’ll live up to our responsibilities for future generations of Michiganders.”