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From the Farmhouse to the White House: Work Worth Doing – Don McKenzie’s Farewell

"Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing."

We built something from nothing. Over the last two decades, the bobwhite quail community started from scratch and created a force for a worthy mission: stemming the decline and starting the restoration of the northern bobwhite and numerous companion species.

The many passionate, dedicated, and intrepid biologists of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee created and continue stoking the fires of their restoration strategy, the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative. Breck Carmichael stepped up immediately, leaping off the starting line in 2003 and setting a brisk pace as the first-ever NBCI Coordinator. In 2004, he and the NBTC handed the baton to me. I’ve put everything I have into it ever since. Day-to-day, our progress usually has been difficult to see. But looking back through the years, it is obvious we have exceeded all expectations in building a national movement! Together, we:
  • made bobwhites a national conservation priority;
  • created a national model for resident game bird conservation;
  • built NBCI’s national capacity to “lead, leverage, and enable”;
  • catalyzed more and better conservation by states and numerous partners;
  • created new federal conservation practices for grassland birds and bobwhites;
  • elevated bobwhite conservation to levels no one previously thought possible.
For example, after eight years of undaunted hard work, NBCI and the NBTC finally got one of our flagship objectives, Natives First, into the 2018 Farm Bill Managers’ Report. That unprecedented victory will be a tectonic shift for the long-term future of bobwhites in agricultural landscapes. And it is our victory!! If not for the NBCI and NBTC, it would not have happened. Life offers few opportunities for a person to be part of something this big and this worthwhile. Every one of us should feel proud to be a part. I know I am deeply honored to have had the privilege of leading NBCI for the past 15 years; to have been intimately involved with NBCI from its very beginning 21 years ago; and to have been actively associated with the NBTC for all its 25 years. There comes a time for everyone when we have been in a job long enough. If we are lucky, we will recognize that time and be able to act on it. Several times in recent years, I have stated publicly that when we get Natives First language in a farm bill, I should retire, for there can be no more profound accomplishment for bobwhites than establishing a native vegetation standard at USDA. My time has come. I announced to the NBTC’s 25th Annual Meeting in Carbondale, Illinois that I am retiring from NBCI on October 1, 2019. The NBCI and NBTC are in a transitional period, ready for and poised to step up another level. New skills, creative ideas, and boundless leadership energy are needed to adapt to and address myriad NBCI challenges ahead. The NBTC Steering Committee, the NBCI Management Board, the University of Tennessee, and NBCI staff are already working hard to develop a transition plan to keep NBCI and our movement going and growing, in one form or another. I have been blessed with numerous priceless friendships developed over 25 years with this tight-knit community of bobwhite fanatics. I thank each of you sincerely for your dedication to bobwhites, for your support through all these years, and for your friendship. I especially want to tip my hat and thank the staff of NBCI for your unceasing hard work, for breaking new ground with every pioneering step forward, for your willingness to take a chance on working for an unproven concept built on soft money, for sharing an ambitious vision, and for putting up with my eccentricities as a boss. I want to thank the University of Tennessee for 11 years of foundational support that have been vital to enabling NBCI’s growth and success. Thank you, also, to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program for working with NBCI, the states, and UT to create a unique new funding mechanism that can empower important new regional initiatives. Thank you to the federal agencies—e.g., Farm Service Agency, National Park Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA Forest Service—that are rallying to the cause of restoring native grassland habitats and species. Thanks to the many non-government organizations who bring unique capabilities and add immense value to bobwhite and grassland bird conservation. Finally, thank you to the states that comprise the NBTC and the NBCI Management Board that have created, supported, and led a movement that has become bigger and stronger than the sum of the parts. The upcoming period of transition will test the strength and endurance of the prototype machine we have built. My confidence is high that the NBCI and the bobwhite movement will emerge stronger than ever. Indeed, it must, for we have barely begun to address a generational conservation challenge that will require monumental perseverance. From wherever my next chapter is based, I will continue to be your loudest cheerleader as all of you continue your hard work at work worth doing, restoring our beloved bobwhite. Sammy and Teddy are counting on you!
Sammy (right) and Teddy (left)

Don McKenzie

Former NBCI Director, Don McKenzie is a product of the deep South, steeped in its cultures of hunting, fried catfish, barbeque and SEC football. He survived an abrupt transition from hip boots in South Carolina to dark suits in Washington, DC as a professional wildlife advocate specializing in agriculture conservation policy.

During 6 ½ years in DC, he engaged the community of southeastern bobwhite quail biologists, and soon became their most active representative on federal conservation policy issues. McKenzie eventually arose as a national leader for what now is recognized as arguably the largest and most difficult wildlife conservation challenge of this era—restoring huntable and sustainable populations of wild bobwhites across much of their range. He was a facilitator and editor of the original “Northern (now “National”) Bobwhite Conservation Initiative,” published in 2002, and has been the national leader for implementing the initiative since 2004.