Environment Picture

Becky Humphries: Steady hand at the DNR

Becky Humphries’ most remarkable qualities were acquired at a tender age.
     Patience and perseverance were instilled during idyllic summer days at her father’s side, fishing with an old-fashioned cane pole. Acceptance and respect were learned as a student at Pontiac Central High School during the turbulent and sometimes violent 1970s era of court-ordered busing and integration. And toughness in a male-dominated world was honed during time spent as the only girl in testosterone-laden deer hunting camps in Michigan’s North woods.
     Those life experiences laid the groundwork for an exceptional 32-year career at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR)—six of them as the agency’s first female director where she was roundly lauded for innovative programs, straight talk and transparency and inclusion in agency decision-making.
     Humphries’ work leaves a legacy of positive contributions to the management of Michigan’s woods and waters—and stamped an imprint on the culture of a DNR that is more transparent, open and responsive in her wake.
     For those achievements, the Michigan Environmental Council has chosen Humphries as the 2011 recipient of Michigan’s highest environmental honor—the Helen and William Milliken Distinguished Service Award. The award is presented annually to a person who shows outstanding leadership, enduring commitment and extraordinary public service in protecting Michigan’s natural resources.
     “Becky Humphries has been a steadfast defender of Michigan’s natural resources for decades,” said Michigan Environmental Council President Chris Kolb. “Her work as a field biologist, a forward-thinking manager and as the first female director of the Michigan DNR has been a terrific example of how one person can make a difference.
      “Anyone in search of a true role model needs to look no further than Becky Humphries.”

Knew her path early
     Humphries knew early on that she wanted to work in a field that was meaningful to her—and that meant wildlife. She was the youngest of three sisters steeped in outdoor sports. “We had a kennel full of beagles. We rabbit hunted as a family,” she recalls of her Oakland County upbringing. She remembers vividly the day her late father told her she was “old enough to clean (her) own fish,” and she still treasures the .308 Winchester rifle he passed along to her.
     When the time came to pick a college major, she chose fisheries and wildlife management, wondering all the while if she would be employable. One of her college professors tried to steer her toward ‘women’s work’.
“He said I’d better pick another career because a woman would never get hired in that field,” she recalled. “That was like throwing down the gauntlet to me.”
     She landed a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a crew leader for young workers at the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge near Saginaw. From there she was hired by the DNR where she worked appraising and buying property for the parks and wildlife divisions, and later as part of a team that leased land for mineral development. In 1982, she transferred to the Wildlife Division as a habitat biologist.
     Her years in deer camps were good preparation for the job. DNR fieldwork often meant bunking in cabins as the only female on work crews, and occasionally dealing with low-level harassment. By and large, though, Humphries said her colleagues respected her professionalism without prejudice.
      “Honestly, I’m not a very sensitive person,” said Humphries. “I speak directly and frankly. Act inappropriately and you got my candid reply back and that was usually the end of it.”

Moving up
     Humphries would have been more than happy to spend her career as a field biologist. But her passion and skills did not go unnoticed by the DNR brass. In a succession of moves, Humphries was promoted to district biologist for the Grand Rapids office, moved briefly to Lansing to be a section supervisor, then was acting deputy director of the agency, and became chief of the Wildlife Division.
     She had a habit of calling the DNR’s main office numbers to ensure the phones were being answered and showing up unannounced in field offices throughout the state. “I’d walk in the district office to use the restroom,” she said. “I wanted to see what the public saw.”
     Her pride in the agency’s work—even in the midst of shrinking budgets and political buffeting—was infectious. It was a trait learned in high school, when students at Pontiac Central High maintained school pride in the midst of the racial tensions and civil unrest of the early 1970s.
     “There was busing and animosity, and I was the minority,” said Humphries. “But the students maintained such a pride, spirit, in their school throughout it all. It taught me that whatever the circumstances, you can still have pride in what you do.”

A quiet competence
     In 2004, she was named DNR Director. It was a position she held—including a brief stint as director of the short-lived Department of Natural Resources and Environment—until her retirement at the end of last year.
     For the public, the headline was Humphries’ groundbreaking status as the agency’s first woman director. But for hunters, anglers, conservationists and environmentalists, the headline was quiet competence and integrity built over decades.
     Under Humphries’ tenure, the DNR expanded outreach and educational programs, achieved dual sustainability certifications for state forests, undertook an intensive effort to connect the state via non-motorized trails and earned praise for working efficiently with ever-declining revenues.
     In 2010, the agency abolished the old window-decal permit system for state parks admission, replacing it with a new model that is expected to provide an increased and more stable funding base for park maintenance and operations.
     Her even-handed approach to issues fraught with peril, both environmental and political, earned her praise and respect from all quarters.
     “A supremely capable chief, a well-respected field biologist and a dedicated conservationist,” wrote veteran Grand Rapids Press Outdoors writer Howard Meyerson when Humphries retired. Meyerson wrote that Humphries “is a leader who doesn’t shirk transparency … is no rubber stamp … has been a good protector of the state’s natural resources” and that he has “…been impressed with Humphries’ gumption, too (some might call it backbone).”
     Humphries’ commitment to natural resources—and to Michigan—continues in her new job based in the Ann Arbor office of Ducks Unlimited (see sidebar). She turned down at least three Washington, DC-based job offers.
      “This,” she says of the Great Lakes State, “is really where I want to be.”
***
Past winners of the Milliken Award are Steve Hamp, Peter Stroh, Peter Wege, Marty Fluharty, Peter Karmanos, Congressman John Dingell, Congressman Vernon Ehlers, Mary C. Brown, Bunyan Bryant, PhD, Lana Pollack and Faye Alexander Nelson.

Observations from Milliken Award winner Becky Humphries
“Sometimes what a leader does is clear away the barriers for those doing the real work.”

 “I never understood how you could be a good park manager if you’d never camped.”

“I never recognized the huge number of (contaminated) sites threatening resources until I became director.”

“Working in coalitions is a lot harder than firing from the hip.”

“We used to have sportsmen and environmental groups
working hand in glove. Then they split apart. We’re losing our political clout … We can ill afford to divide.”

“I’ll always remember the day my dad said ‘you’re old enough to clean your own fish.’”

Humphries’ new gig: Protecting wetlands with Ducks Unlimited
     Becky Humphries describes her new job—director of the Great Lakes/Atlantic Regional Office of Ducks Unlimited—as a “magical mix” of grassroots work with a staff of science professionals.
     The nonprofit got its start in 1937 during the Dust Bowl, when drought-impacted waterfowl numbers had plummeted. Its mission is to restore, protect and enhance the nation’s wetlands, which are key habitats for North America’s waterfowl.
     “We have roots with the duck hunters, but there are lots of non-hunter members who believe in the preservation of wetlands,” said Humphries.
     Humphries’ responsibilities include managing conservation in 21 states, from New England to the Chesapeake, and throughout the Great Lakes to the Upper Mississippi region. She oversees conservation planning and program delivery, and coordinates efforts between Ducks Unlimited staff and volunteers with private, state and federal agencies.
     She works out of the organization’s Ann Arbor office and continues to maintain her West Michigan home in Lowell.
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