Denfeld News

May 4, 2008
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Dedication is well worth 1,000 acres
By Dennis Anderson

DOUGLAS COUNTY, MINN. — Sometimes, for some people, life comes full circle. Such was the case Saturday for Roger Holmes, who for 41 years exercised a personal passion in the name of conservation, benefiting all Minnesotans, perhaps especially those not yet born.

Holmes, a retired Department of Natural Resources fish and wildlife division director, and before that a DNR wildlife section chief, and before that, in Douglas County, a DNR game manager, was feted here Saturday by a multitude of friends, former colleagues and family members.

The event was the dedication of a 1,000-acre state wildlife management area in Holmes' name, a plot of land that cost well in excess of $1 million and appropriately was paid for by all manner of people -- not least rank-and-file sportsmen and women who, like Holmes, love Minnesota enough to give back to it.

Holmes can be forgiven if the day was emotional for him. Doubtless it recalled the day, now so long ago, in 1962, when he first came to Douglas County as a whippersnapper assistant area game manager

"I just loved working here,'' he said. "Back then, there were lots of ducks and pheasants.''

But few wildlife management areas.

That would soon change. In three years, Holmes and his DNR colleagues accomplished what until then had been thought impossible: the establishment of 22 wildlife management areas in Douglas County and three more in adjacent Pope County.

Not bad for a kid born in Cloquet and raised in Duluth -- foreign landscapes compared to the prairies, lakes and mixed hardwoods that define Douglas County.

"I always had my dog with me when I worked here, and my shotgun,'' Holmes recalled. "It was great being out in the field every day, and when I finished my work I hunted for an hour or two and could almost always bag my limit of pheasants.''

Yet Holmes' career with the DNR ultimately would be defined more by his backbone than his shooting eye.

For him, the resource always came first. Not legislators' silly whims. Not county commissioners' parochialisms. Not the political correctness that so often defines the ebb and flow of bureaucracies as large as the DNR.

Saturday, many DNR colleagues, past and present, who were privileged over Holmes' long career to fight the good conservation fight with him came from far and wide to honor their former leader.

Tom Isley, Holmes' longtime assistant, was there. Also Tom Landwehr, now with the Nature Conservancy. And Ed Boggess and Dave Schad, both still with the DNR, the latter as fish and wildlife division director.

The current DNR commissioner, Mark Holsten, made the trip as well.
Yet few of these professionals knew firsthand the many trials by fire that punctuated Holmes' career.

First among these might have been the uprising among pheasant hunters in 1969 in, of all places, Douglas County. By then Holmes had been transferred to St. Paul, fast-tracked for big things in the agency by the late DNR fish and game chief Dave Vesall.

"The pheasants in Douglas County and elsewhere in Minnesota had been hit hard by winter storms, and the Douglas County sportsmen wanted to close the season, thinking that would help birds recover,'' Holmes recalled.

Trained as a zoologist -- and knowing firsthand through his wildlife management experience that habitat availability primarily determines the size and health of animal populations, not gunning pressure -- Holmes resisted.

But the Douglas County boys went around him and convinced the Legislature to close the local ringneck season in 1969 to determine whether the pheasant population there would fare any better, year to year, than birds in neighboring counties, where hunting was allowed.

In the end, Holmes was proven correct, and the Douglas County ringneck season was opened again.

"But the toughest decision I made was to close the statewide deer season in 1971,'' Holmes said.

By then he was chief of the wildlife section, serving under commissioner Robert Herbst. Whitetail hunting in the state historically had been a free-for-all, and Holmes -- and others in the DNR -- believed Minnesota's deer needed a rest for a year while a new hunting scheme was developed.

Thus was born, to a large degree, modern deer management.

All of which benefited all Minnesotans, not least the scores of friends, family members and admirers who gathered about 10 miles north of Alexandria on Saturday.

Here was a man, Holmes, whom everyone agreed had the good fortune in life to pursue work for which he obviously was so specifically groomed, as if by divine intervention.

Here also was a man who had the good fortune to come home again, back to Douglas County, his professional life completing a circle with the dedication of a wildlife management area in his name.

As a conservationist, Holmes had the right stuff.

He led by example, never backed down, and served as a beacon whose reflection shined on everyone around him and made all who worked with him, and for him, look better.

And be better.

One-thousand acres.

Next time you're in Douglas County, stop by. Take a hike among the tall grasses. Be alert for the pitching and wheeling of a blue-winged teal. Watch for the aerobatics of a red-tailed hawk. Marvel at the sight of a deer silhouetted against the setting sun.

Roger Holmes would be happy if you did.

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