This interview with Ruffed Grouse Society President and CEO John Eichinger is part of OutdoorHub’s Leaders of Conservation series, in which we sit down with leaders of the North American conservation movement to learn more about the stories behind their organizations and people.
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect,” famed conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote.
Almost 66 years after Leopold’s death, North America is home to numerous organizations that ensure the continent’s wildlife and natural places are not carelessly wasted. Among that number is the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS), an organization that champions one of the most popular upland birds among hunters.
“The organization was established in 1961,” stated John Eichinger, current president and CEO of RGS. “We are North America’s foremost conservation organization dedicated to preserving our sporting traditions by creating healthy forest habitat for ruffed grouse and American woodcock. We work with landowners and government agencies to develop habitat using scientific management practices.”
That has been the mission of RGS for more than 50 years, ever since three hunters founded the organization in Monterey, Virginia. Although there are now more than 130 RGS chapters in the United States and Canada, John said that their mission has changed little in the past half century.
“Unlike so many other species, the ruffed grouse needs a specific natural habitat in order to breed and raise its young,” he explained. “The ruffed grouse can’t be raised in a pen or in an agricultural sort of operation. They just don’t like it. We need to create the habitat that they thrive in, and there’s where our work lies.”
Those habitats, as many hunters are familiar with, are young forests. These are pockets of forest dominated by young trees and shrubs such as grey birch, dogwood, aspen, cherry, and maple. Many species, especially birds, depend on young forests for their diverse arrays of plants, bountiful seed production, and dense protective cover. Animals like the ruffed grouse are inevitably linked to these forests, and the decline of such habitat has been difficult to reverse.
“These are young trees and young trees don’t stay young forever,” John shared. “So we have to constantly create new habitat to ensure that there will be these young trees. Some other [conservation] organizations found that the species they championed moved from a position of scarcity 50, 30 years ago to a position of abundance now. Some people will say this about deer or wild turkey but nobody says it about the ruffed grouse.”
At the heart of the movement to restore ruffed grouse are dependable, scientific management practices, and RGS began its own research initiative with a grant to renowned grouse expert Gordon Gullion in 1972. Research in itself is a vital first step, but getting the message to landowners, state wildlife officials, and biologists on the ground is as every bit as important.
“The greatest concern we have is the general public doesn’t understand how important a balance of age classes is for a forest,” John said. “A healthy forest is not all one age. You need to have young trees, and some old-growth forest in the mix. […] If it’s all one age class, the forest is very vulnerable.”
That is also why RGS directly funds practical habitat development programs to create new forests. The organization is currently overseeing more than 700 projects in 28 states with a total impact of over half a million acres. Local chapters work with state wildlife and forestry agencies to encourage the growth of young forests while fundraising efforts pump millions of dollars every year into conservation.
John said that in its own way, the Ruffed Grouse Society is similar to a more traditional business.
“At the end of the day there is revenue, there are expenses, there is staff that needs to be paid and focused towards a goal,” John stated. “The nice thing about working with RGS is that you get a real sense of satisfaction when you leave the office. You feel like you did something good. That’s an added benefit.”
John took on his role as the RGS President and CEO in 2012, but he is well-known in the conservation community. He previously worked for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the National Wildlife Federation, and most recently as Executive Director for Safari Club International (SCI). Before he became active in conservation, John was a businessman and served in the US Army.
“I was the executive director at SCI for a couple of years and then I retired. Quite frankly retirement at that time wasn’t all it was cracked up to be,” he said with a chuckle. “I missed the work environment and I particularly missed the opportunity to have an impact on conservation matters here in North America. A good friend of mine called me up after I retired, and I expressed to him these thoughts. He told me he would keep his eyes open in case something came along, and about a year later he shared with me this opportunity at RGS.”
John’s background and expertise made him a natural choice for the position, and he says he has ambitious goals for leading RGS into the rest of 2014 and beyond.
“In order to be a good leader you need credibility, you need to be able to display fairness and firmness, and demonstrate consistency. I believe those are that key values I try to emphasize,” John said. “One of the areas where I think I can add particular value is bringing my business expertise to this nonprofit organization. I believe that applying the same business principals used elsewhere to RGS will help it run more efficiently, and focus more on the mission at hand.”
The RGS is moving forward to meet the demands of an ever-changing, more connected world. Its mission, however, stays the same. As the tagline in the organization’s new logo spell out, RGS is for healthy forests, abundant wildlife, and sporting traditions.
What does that mean? Watch the video below for a glimpse at what RGS is working to preserve:
We would like to thank John for taking the time to talk with us. For more profiles of leaders of conservation, please read our recent interview with Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation President Jeff Crane.
Image courtesy John Eichinger