St. Paul — The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council on Tuesday voted to recommend hiring Mark Johnson as the group’s new executive director.
The vote was 9-2 in favor of Johnson, the executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. Johnson perhaps is most well known as a result of his current position, but he’s been a player on the state’s conservation scene for more than two decades.
“I’m excited about the potential,” Johnson said in an interview Wednesday morning. “I’m really just very honored to be considered.”
Johnson, 55, has been with MDHA since 1999. Before that, he was executive director of Turn in Poachers for four years, and a regional director for the Ruffed Grouse Society for five years.
In addition to previous experience as an executive director, Johnson has worked for years with a wide variety of people in the conservation field.
“One of my goals, personally, is going to be telling the story,” Johnson said. If people don’t understand the need for the $100 million or so from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, and don’t understand where the money is going and its positive effects on the ground, “Then why would they be supportive of the council and supportive of the expenditures?”
Tuesday’s meeting was the second related to the hiring of someone to replace Bill Becker, who’s been the council’s executive director since its formation and who’s retiring in November.
It’s been a contentious process. The Legislative Coordinating Commission, along with a subset of the 12-member council, winnowed the original pool of 35 applicants down to two. Those two – Kevin Bigalke, administrator of the Nine Mile Creek Watershed District, and Heather Koop, assistant director of the L-SOHC – were slated to have interviews before the full L-SOHC in August.
But three members walked out of the meeting, saying the full council should have had the opportunity to interview more candidates. After those members walked out, the remaining council members voted to interview Bigalke, Koop, and a third candidate, which turned out to be Johnson.
Bigalke, Johnson, and Koop all interviewed Tuesday.
Council member Ron Schara had a prior commitment and didn’t vote. Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, and council member Susan Olson voted against the recommendation.
“Mark has been a proven and effective leader on a range of outdoor-related issues,” said Garry Leaf, of Sportsmen for Change.
The Legislative Coordinating Commission has ultimate authority to hire Johnson, but it’s expected the commission will honor the recommendation of the L-SOHC.
Johnson said he was pulling into his driveway in Grand Rapids last night when L-SOHC chair David Hartwell called him and told him the council would be recommending him for the executive director position.
Johnson hadn’t heard from the LCC as of Wednesday morning. Once the position is finalized, MDHA likely will move ahead with finding someone to replace him.
“It’s a new challenge, and it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to,” said Johnson, who expects to move to the Twin Cities. “But I’m going to miss these people (at MDHA).
We’ve got a phenomenal staff and an absolutely wonderful board of directors,” as well as a large contingent of committed volunteers.