The Foundation is thrilled to have Michael Williamson on our board. Williamson has served as deputy secretary for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the director of the North Carolina Retirement System and deputy director of the District of Columbia Retirement Board.
We recently sat down with the former University of Wisconsin-Madison administrator to talk to him about what he cherishes most about Wisconsin’s wildlife and public lands, and what he hopes to accomplish with the Foundation.
Q: How did you develop your love for the outdoors?
A: My dad ran a fishing pier on one of the barrier islands on the coast of North Carolina, so I grew up on the oceanfront and connected to fishing. And then my parents divorced when I was 13 and my mother and I moved to the Smokies, so we lived in western North Carolina and my family vacations consisted of horseback camping trips in the Smokies. And then when I went to college, I began to camp and travel in different places. I lived in Boulder, Colorado, so I camped on the Front Range, and in Rocky Mountain National Park. I had my 21st birthday in Kabul, Afghanistan. I went from North Carolina to Montreal and then got a round-trip ticket from Montreal to Rome. I went from Rome to Greece to Turkey to Iran to Afghanistan to Pakistan to India and then spent 2.5 months in Nepal. Throughout my life, I’ve developed a real appreciation for the outdoors and that’s continued into adulthood.
Q: What brought you to Wisconsin?
A: I lived here from ’79 to ’94 and then left to go back home to North Carolina. One of the attractions to moving back to the state was the great access to the outdoors. I cross-country ski, I snowshoe, I road bike in the summer, I hunt from time to time, but predominantly I’m a fisherman. I fish anywhere, salt water, freshwater, you leave the top off an aquarium, I’ll fish in it.
My love is fly fishing for trout. Trout require clean cold water. Wisconsin has done an excellent job at maintaining the trout habitat. There’s over 3,000 miles of trout streams in Wisconsin. Because trout only live in beautiful places, it’s a wonderful way to connect to the natural areas of the state and the wildlife that lives there.
Q: What is it about the Foundation that drew you to be on the board?
A: I’ve been blessed to inherit the natural resources in the state because someone else had a vision to set those aside. It’s clear that we need to continue to build an environmental ethic in the generations that follow us and to preserve and set aside additional resources. The work that the Foundation does accomplishes that, both in terms of the sites and the species that live in the sites.
There’s a nurturing of the spirit that occurs when you can connect to the land. I understand it’s not for everyone, that everyone doesn’t value it. But for those of us who do, and those who have yet to come to value it, we need to preserve resources.
Q: What do you see as your role on the board or what would you like to accomplish?
A: I hope to bring more attention and more awareness to people who would like an opportunity to contribute so that we can build the financial resources that are available to support this work. I’ve got 38 years of organizational experience working in complex public sector organizations. I would hope to be able to bring some of that experience to bear.
Q: What unique role do you think NRF plays here in Wisconsin?
A: As budgets have tightened in governmental agencies, it’s harder to target money for some of the environmental programs. I think the education and the preservation, the resources and the attention the Foundation brings allows us to do things above and beyond what the state could accomplish today. It’s not intended to replace the public funds that are dedicated to natural resources in the state of Wisconsin, but its value is in supplementing those resources.
Q: Do you have a favorite outdoor place in Wisconsin?
A: My favorite place is the Timber Coulee region 15-20 miles southeast of LaCrosse. It’s home to a number of spring creeks and rolling hillsides that remind me of my home place in the Smokies. It’s a great trout fishery. I try to make at least one or a couple trips there each year.
Q: When did you get into fishing?
A: I started fishing on the pier in the ocean. I had to hold the rod between my legs and turn the handle because I couldn’t hold the rod. I caught my first fish in the surf when I was four years old. My mother had bought me a small little fishing rod and I caught this fish and neither she nor I could get it off. So I had to go to the pier and have my dad take it off the hook. He had it mounted and it’s in my apartment now. I still have this little fish, this little Virginia whiting that I caught when I was four years old surf fishing. I’ve just always loved to fish. And then as I grew up and I came to Wisconsin, I learned to fly fish in Wisconsin.
Q: Are there other outdoor activities you like?
A: Canoeing, kayaking, hiking. I’m just champing at the bit to get on my cross country skis. And I really got into biking. I watch the eagles from my office here. Right here in the city, once you pay attention, there are all kinds of things that happen around here. I’ve seen 10, 15 eagles sitting out here. They’ll eat, they get full and they’ll just sit here on the ice. The geese come in and then the tundra swans have been in here. I got up one morning and looked at Lake Mendota, I can see both lakes from my place, and it looked like whitecaps. I went and got my spotting scope and there’s hundreds of tundra swans on the lake migrating through. I got in the truck and drove over there and got out and they’re just all sitting on the lake resting, most of them with their heads tucked under their wing sleeping. And then there’s the snow geese, you’ll see them come through, and the the other one is the loons. I keep a record of the loons when they show up in the spring and when the last ones depart in early winter. They go down to the Gulf and the shores of Florida. I used to see a few of them in the wintertime in North Carolina off the coast there.
(Photos courtesy of Michael Williamson)
By Lindsay Renick Mayer