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Pugh to Retire as WFF Director

October 6, 2011
 
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Citing the theory that there are only a few opportunities during one’s professional career to exit when the timing is right, M.N. “Corky” Pugh, Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, has seized upon one such opportunity and will retire, effective Dec. 1, 2011.

Pugh, who succeeded longtime director and mentor Charles Kelley 12½ years ago, said he feels confident in the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ direction and wants to step aside and pursue other interests.

“We have a Commissioner (N. Gunter Guy Jr.) and Assistant Commissioner (Curtis Jones) who have created a very stable organizational climate in which a transition can occur,” said Pugh, a native of Monroeville. “I wouldn’t entrust just anybody with that program and making the decision about leadership, but I trust Gunter. I’m confident he’ll make a good choice. And I trust him to make good decisions about the division’s future.

“The division, right now, is in better shape than we’ve probably ever been. We’re financially sound. We’ve got tremendous depth in terms of leadership potential in the division. Our people are better equipped and trained than probably ever in history. We may not have as many boots on the ground as we have had in the past, but as far as getting the job done, we’re probably in better shape than we’ve ever been.”

A graduate of the University of South Alabama who later earned a Master’s Degree in public administration at Auburn, Montgomery, Pugh said his resumé looks like he couldn’t hold a job. After earning his undergraduate degree, Pugh became an investigator for the Mobile County District Attorney. After two years, he moved to Montgomery and worked as chief investigator for the State Attorney General’s Office for eight years. Pugh then served for four years as Assistant Conservation Commissioner under Commissioner Jim Martin during Gov. Guy Hunt’s term. He then went to the State Finance Department as Deputy Finance Director for 18 months before moving to the State Building Commission as Director for a year.

“Then Charles Kelley called and I came to work as his assistant in 1993,” said Pugh. “Charles was without doubt a mentor for me, along with Robin Swift (former State Finance Director). Charles was the longest-tenured director of a state wildlife agency – 39½ years. When Charles brought me into the division, he recognized I didn’t necessarily think like him. And we argued several times, vociferously, about things. But 99 percent of the time, he was right. When Charles was nearing his retirement, we had some heart-to-heart talks. He told me, ‘Corky, you don’t need to do things the way I did them, and I know you won’t. Times have changed and it’s time for a new kind of leadership. You need to do things your way.’

“He also told me he felt sorry for us. He said, ‘We’ve already solved all the easy problems.’ Charles was a tremendous influence on me professionally. I wouldn’t give anything for having had the experience of working for him.”

During Pugh’s tenure, one of the Division’s major goals has been the recruitment and retention of anglers and hunters in the outdoors community. Pugh said, however, the recognition for that effort is not his.

“The credit for these things belongs to the employees of the division, not to me,” he said. “I just drive the bus that gets them to the ballgame.

“I guess I’m most proud of our youth dove hunts. Responsive Management, Mark Duda’s outfit, recently released a voluminous study on youth hunting recruitment programs nationally. This was a substantive study commissioned by the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Mark Duda singled out Alabama’s youth dove hunts as a successful recruitment program for young hunters and explained why. That makes me very, very proud. That program is successful because of a lot of committed employees, partners, landowners and the Conservation and Natural Resources Foundation. There have been tens of 1,000s of kids who have experienced their first exposure to hunting through those hunts.”

Pugh feels the division can take pride in the ways it has adapted to the financial realities of the current economy, which have been highlighted in the division’s publication “Guiding Principles and Strategies” that is available at http://www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/WFFGPS.pdf online.

“We started in ’09 adapting to the changing economic realities, realizing it doesn’t matter what happens with the state’s General Fund. We don’t get General Fund money. Our revenue comes from hunting and fishing license sales and matching federal aid dollars. At the same time we were seeing net revenues decline, everything we were doing was costing more money. We took the facts out to our field-level employees and briefed our 300-plus employees at six locations. I told our employees that ultimately the decisions on how we would adapt would be mine, but I could make the best decisions with the benefit of what they know. They see things with far greater clarity than I do. I got more than 500 items of input from employees, and most of it was very useful. The ‘Guiding Principles and Strategies’ document is more or less an organizational compass that guides us in our decision-making now and into the future. I think it will serve the division well.”

Of the items on Pugh’s to-do list that still need work, pay inequities for the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) employees is one that he hopes will gain attention.

“Were it not for the sheer commitment and initiative of our employees, we would not be operating at the level we’re operating at,” he said. “An opportunity to lead people like that is a rare thing indeed.

“On the resource side, some of the issues we are dealing with are nuisance wildlife, particularly deer in suburbia and feral hogs. We’ve really started to step up our capacity to deal with nuisance wildlife, because that’s what the public is looking for us to do.”

The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Education, Outreach and Diversity Committee, chaired by Pugh, has undertaken a massive conservation education initiative.

“One of the major challenges, not just for us but the whole nation, is the field of conservation education,” Pugh said. “The reason that’s so important is that if our state fish and wildlife agencies’ programs and services are not relevant, we’re in trouble. With the ever-increasing urbanization and time-intense society we live in, if we don’t connect with people in ways that matter to them, there is not enough of an underlying base of support for our programs in terms of public sentiment and funding for management and protection of our natural resources.”

Currently only seven percent of Alabamians hunt, but 89 percent of the population approves of hunting with one caveat – fair chase.

“If you lose the element of fair chase, public approval drops to19 percent,” Pugh said. “The mainstream hunting community weighed in very clearly on the issue of fair chase with the passage of the prohibition on ‘canned hunts.’ I think the mainstream hunting and landowner communities weighed in very clearly by opposing hunting over bait. In fact, one of the most gratifying things in my career was watching the mainstream hunting community successfully defeat legalization of hunting over bait.

“When you look at the science and at the importance of fair chase in the public approval or disapproval of hunting, it’s a no-brainer. People forget that society determines our rights and privileges for us.”

Although Pugh will retire Dec. 1, he doesn’t plan to disappear from the Alabama outdoors community.

“I plan to remain very active and devote the next several years of my life to ensuring that our hunting heritage is protected and preserved, and I plan to spend the next several years of my life ensuring that the common man is not stiff-armed out of the way by narrow special interests,” he said. “When you look at the demographics on our hunters, the vast, vast majority of them are hard-working, common folks. There’s a slippery slope that all fish and wildlife agencies face of constant pressure to over-regulate hunting and fishing or allocate the resource to the more avid, the more committed, the more affluent, more experienced hunters and anglers. But when you look at the demographics, you realize those hunters and anglers make up a small minority.

“For licensing purposes, the State of Alabama gets to count that coal miner or that construction worker or pulpwooder exactly the same way in terms of revenue and federal aid as the richest man in Birmingham. They all get counted one time each. At the polling place, they all pull the lever one time each. If we don’t make sure that hunting opportunities and fishing opportunities are available to the common man then we are going to be so marginalized as a community of outdoors people, that from a public policy standpoint, we won’t even be on anyone’s radar.”

Of course, Pugh said a few years down the road he’s going to kick back and just enjoy Alabama’s great outdoors.

“At some point, I’m going to go bream fishing and squirrel hunting,” he said. “I’m still a six-year-old trapped in a 50-something-year-old body. I hope that I never get to where I’m not. All I have to do to be six again is to go bream fishing or squirrel hunting. Although, I like to hunt and fish for a lot of other things, something about those two activities rejuvenates me. It may be because they’re so simple.”

PHOTO: Corky Pugh, right, and George Mann of Auburn join in the celebration with young hunter Eddie Hackett, who bagged his first deer at Mann’s farm.

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