Ducks Unlimited, whose mission is wetland-wildlife conservation, this week found itself in a different business: crisis management.
So far, things aren’t going well, and it’s a safe bet matters will get worse for the 605,000-member organization before they get better.
Given the plight of wetlands and waterfowl in this country, that’s not good.
At issue is the firing on Monday by the organization of longtime DU magazine columnist Don Thomas of Lewistown, Mont., after he wrote a story in a separate publication criticizing a DU donor and onetime board member.
In a letter to Thomas, DU described James Cox Kennedy, chairman of the media conglomerate Cox Enterprises, as a “dedicated volunteer, who is among the nation’s most ardent and active waterfowl conservationists.”
Kennedy may well be that. He might also be a great guy. I don’t know the man, and a Cox spokesperson has said he isn’t commenting.
What’s beyond dispute is that Kennedy, whom Forbes magazine once listed as the 49th-richest American, hasn’t endeared himself to many Montanans (if any) since his purchase of a ranch there through which about 8 miles of the Ruby River flow.
After buying the property, Kennedy attempted to shut off public access to the river from county roads and bridges next to his land.
Montana law generally allows access to rivers and streams at sites such as public bridges, provided anglers or other recreationists stay below the river’s high-water mark.
The law is critical to enjoyment of what are arguably Montana’s greatest resources, its rivers, because most riverine properties are privately owned.
In court, Kennedy has argued that the access law violates his property rights. But last year the Montana Supreme Court ruled against him, 5-2, saying property owners can’t prevent access to public land or water where anglers, floaters and other recreationists have a history of use.
The case was remanded to district court, where it now sits, to determine specifics of the contested easement.
Last month, Thomas, the columnist, wrote in a publication called Outside Bozeman that Kennedy’s anti-access efforts were, essentially, an attempt by a billionaire bully to outmaneuver rank-and-file anglers and floaters.
“The most feasible strategy [to defeat the access law] is to outspend the opposition and litigate it to death with teams of lawyers, dispatching them on command like the Wicked Witch of the West unleashing her winged monkeys on the Land of Oz,” Thomas wrote.
In response, DU editorial director Matt Young told Thomas in a letter this week that, “We simply cannot condone this type of vitriol directed by one of our contributing editors toward a dedicated DU volunteer.”
Thomas, 67, was first published in DU magazine in 1998 and has written a regular (and popular) column in it since 2001. He hasn’t been an employee but rather a freelance contributing editor, earning, he told me Friday, about $10,000 annually for his efforts.
Thomas makes his living as an outdoors writer, and he’s a good one. In addition to magazine writing, he’s published a number of books available online at donthomasbooks.com.
Interestingly, Thomas is a physician, a board-certified internist who for many years lived and practiced in Alaska. No longer involved with medicine, he now lives in Montana and, in winter, in Arizona.
In 1990, Thomas’ father, E. Donnall Thomas, won the Nobel Prize in medicine.
On Friday, the younger Thomas told me that when he wrote the river access story he “had no idea that [Kennedy] had a connection to DU.”
Even if he had known, he said, he wouldn’t have imagined that repercussions would arise from the story “because it had nothing to do with ducks or Ducks Unlimited.”
A cursory search of Kennedy’s bio on the web suggests that, at the very least, he’s interested in conservation.
Examples: In addition to serving on the DU board, he is a past chair of the Colorado Division of Wildlife Commission and a former president of Wetlands America Trust.
In 2008, he endowed a chair in waterfowl and wetlands conservation at Mississippi State University; in 2014, he swapped land in Mississippi with the Fish and Wildlife Service to conserve wildlife habitat and provide public recreation; and he has donated $3.3 million to Clemson University to establish the James C. Kennedy Waterfowl and Wetlands Conservation Center.
On Thursday I spoke with James Powell, DU director of communications in Memphis.
Powell said Thomas’ story “backed DU into a corner.”
“From an organizational perspective, it’s impossible to think we could have members of our own staff taking really nasty shots at people who are our volunteers and donors,” Powell said.
Powell also said Kennedy played no role in Thomas’ firing, neither suggesting nor demanding it.
DU is taking a licking over this issue, especially on social media, and the firestorm will rage a while.
• Thomas had every right to pen his Ruby River access story, a matter of great public interest in Montana. Whether he should have contacted, or attempted to contact, Kennedy for comment before publishing is open to debate. Generally, though not always, that’s journalistic protocol. On the other hand, Kennedy’s opinion about the issue has been well-established in court.
• Clearly, DU had the right to fire Thomas.
• That said, DU CEO Dale Hall (who didn’t return my phone call on the matter) and the group’s board blew this one. Crisis management 101 says that whatever the problem, don’t execute a solution that makes it worse. And what DU has now is worse than the problem. Much worse.
• Ironically, what DU needed in this case was the advice of someone like Kennedy, who, as kingpin of a media company whose holdings include newspapers (and a onetime reporter himself, according to Wikipedia), should know well that people who litigate matters of high public interest by definition open themselves up to criticism, some of it inevitably unfair and unflattering. Realizing this, and in the best interest of DU and its mission, Kennedy should have insisted no action be taken against Thomas, knowing that in all likelihood, no matter where fault in the matter primarily lay, he wouldn’t exit his longtime position quietly.
This matter could have been handled differently. And better.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org