New DNR director Dan Eichinger has Marion roots

April 4, 2019

By Pat Maurer

Dan Eichinger, named the new Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director just before Christmas, has a family background and the experience needed for his new job.

Love of the outdoors came naturally to him. His grandfather Ryan Bontekoe was a charter member of the pigeon River Advisory Council until he died in 1994. He was involved in the group from the early 1970s. Bontekoe was also the president of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs in 1977. Not quite a decade later that same post was held by his father John Eichinger. Later his father was the executive director of Safari Club International and president/CEO of the Ruffled Grouse Society until he retired last June.

Born in Cadillac and raised in Holland, Eichinger spent his childhood hunting and fishing in Osceola County near Marion where he learned to love the woods and water.

Eichinger, 38, attended Michigan State and Central Michigan University and has a BA in political theory and constitutional democracy and master’s degrees in fisheries and wildlife and in public administration.

He was a membership director for MUCC and a conservation and natural resources policy advisor to Lt. Gov. John Cherry during the Jennifer Granholm administration.

From 2007 to 2009 he worked for the MDNR as a legislative liaison and aided passage of legislation creating Michigan’s Recreational Passport, to replace vehicle windshield stickers for State Park entry.

Dan Eichinger, new director for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, shown in his office at Constitution Hall in Lansing. Photos credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Dan Eichinger, new director for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, shown in his office at Constitution Hall in Lansing.
Photos credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Next he joined the Wildlife Division and helped to establish the DNR Wildlife Division’s first Policy and Regulations Unit, later serving as its supervisor.

He left the DNR in 2012, returning to CMU for an administrator’s job. Two years later, he returned to MUCC to become executive director – continuing his family’s tradition of holding top-level positions with the MUCC, the country’s most effective state-based conservation organization.

According to a release from the DNR, after the November 2018 election, Eichinger said speculation began about who might serve in various positions in the new administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Eichinger was urged by several people to put his name forward, given his experience and situational awareness of state government. Weeks later, he said he was fortunate to find himself on a short list of finalists for the DNR director’s position.
He remembers getting the call and the nod as a “great Christmas present.”

“I was still in my PJs on a Sunday morning when I found out,” Eichinger said. “It was a little before Christmas when I was talking to the governor.”

His first day on the job was January 2.

Eichinger is the DNR’s 21st director, and the youngest to ever hold the post, standing on the shoulders of giants with names like Hoffmaster and MacMullan.

“It’s a huge responsibility, only outweighed by the honor of doing the work,” Eichinger said in the DNR release. “This isn’t just work that I do, this is how I live my life.”

During his first months on the job, Eichinger has been working to reacquaint himself with the DNR, listening to constituents and partner groups, while developing his priorities for the agency moving forward.

Looking ahead, Eichinger said he has a few top-drawer DNR priorities, including continuing to battle fish and wildlife diseases – with the scourge of chronic wasting disease at the spearpoint of those efforts.

Eichinger will insist Michigan remain a leader in preventing exotic bighead and silver carp from entering the Great Lakes, while coordinating state and federal action to curb greater grass carp proliferation in Lake Erie.

He also plans to continue fighting an entire suite of forest resource pests and diseases, which can negatively affect everything from commerce and ecology to recreation and employment.

Eichinger said the DNR’s year-long park centennial celebration in 2019 reminds us of the century-old heritage of state park development across Michigan. The downside of that benchmark is a reminder that Michigan has a 100-year-old park system with a bulging backlog of unfunded park maintenance and improvement projects.

“I’m concerned that at some point that’s going to crush the park system,” he said.

With a declining user base of hunting and fishing license buyers Eichinger said the DNR needs to challenge itself to find solutions to meeting funding needs heading into the future.

In the long term, he said the department needs to continue its work to recruit, retain and reactivate declining numbers of hunters and anglers, reframing the conversation about those activities in rural communities, while remaining relevant.
“In the short-term, we’ve got to change those trend lines now,” Eichinger said.

To do that, he wants to focus on enhanced efforts to make Michigan more of a destination state. Eichinger pointed to a recently released study commissioned by MUCC that showed the statewide economic impacts from hunting and fishing license purchases support 171,000 jobs and generate $11.2 billion annually.

Eichinger suggested making those data available to a wider nationwide audience would increase interest in greater development of Michigan’s recreation economy prospects.

“The biggest impression so far is the quality of people we have working here,” he said.

Eichinger said DNR personnel see their jobs as “mission-based work” they believe in because, like him, they are invested in natural resources and recreation activities in their own daily lives.

He has been spending some of his time meeting with the people of the DNR and learning how the organization can “advance new priorities, celebrate and maximize our current success and continually strive toward person and professional growth and development,” he said.

Meanwhile, amid the hectic pace of his new job, Eichinger still plans to find time to return to nature himself, with his family and his hunting dog.

Eichinger’s home is in western Isabella County, where he lives with his wife and the couple’s 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. There, they hunt ruffed grouse and American woodcock. They also enjoy camping and fishing for bluegill.

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