Steve Williams and the state of the outdoors

Steve Williams 

Since he was just a kid, Steve Williams says he never had any interest in doing anything outside of the fish and wildlife field.

If that's the case, he clearly has followed his dream … all the way to his post as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director.

He's held wildlife and fisheries positions in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Kansas, and his passion for the outdoors hasn't waned.

"I'm proud to say that I'm a hunter and an angler and have been all of my life," said Williams, 45, who considers himself first and foremost "a husband, a father and a son."

"That's very important to me and it is to my wife and my kids, too. That's very important to my job and who I am, and I'm very proud to wear that hat."

Williams recently addressed fish, wildlife and outdoor-recreation issues with ESPNOutdoors.com.

ESPN Outdoors: "A year into your job, what is the state of fisheries in America?"

Steve Williams: "I think we look at the anglers, license sales and participation and we continue to see that there is a strong interest and participation in fisheries and fishing in the country. At least as far as recreational angling is concerned, we're doing well.

"But there are challenges out there when dealing with all types of aquatic resources. That's particularly so in the West, where ongoing drought in recent years is causing problems for recreational fish and native species. That area will be challenging with the drought ongoing.

"Actually before I came on the scene, some folks including the states, tribes and other organizations came together with the Service and put together a strategic vision document for our fisheries.

"It was unprecedented to sit down at the table with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and really craft where we should take fisheries management at the Fish and Wildlife Service in the future. Plus, they've partnered with us to help us achieve this vision because we can't do it alone.

"The stars are aligned to help us improve our fisheries, along with the states, tribes and other organizations' cooperation, input, and help."

EO: "What is the state of wildlife resources in America?"

SW: "There are two answers for that. One is that wildlife species that are hunted — game species — are doing incredibly well in most cases.

"That's a testimony to 60 plus years of hunters paying in dollars through excise taxes, which are paying into conservation programs at the state level. Our huntable game species are doing very well.

"But we still face some challenges with our threatened and endangered species that have been and probably will be challenged by loss of habitat and disruption of habitat.

"I think the Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies have figured out that one of the best ways to deal with these challenges is to work together with private landowners and to provide incentives to private landowners at the local level, the state level and the national level.

"We want to get citizens involved in conservation, not just the state governments. I'm very optimistic about the future of wildlife resources in America."

EO: "What is the state of outdoors recreation in America?"

SW: "It is an important part of who we are and what we do.

"As far as Fish and Wildlife's role, we have 540 National Wildlife Refuge units, at least one in every state.

"We have been and remain committed to providing the best opportunities for wildlife photography, wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing, birding and other forms of compatible outdoors recreation.

"That's always been important to the Service. It's also important to me. I don't just hunt and fish, either. When I have the time, I enjoy getting out and enjoying the fields and forests with my wife and my dog.

"I recognize how important that is. It is to me and I'm increasingly recognizing just how important it is for our citizens to not lose touch with nature. I've given a few presentations that stress that as our country becomes more urbanized; we need to provide more in the way of outdoors recreation opportunity.

"I think it makes for a healthier person when a person has an exposure to a wide variety of outdoors recreation.

"It has been a pretty short time period so far as far as Americans being removed from the land is concerned. I'm just concerned as to what that does to our nation's character.

"Kids should experience canoeing, fishing, wildlife, and hunting — anything that is related to how we have evolved as individuals or as a country. It's part of our American heritage.

"I'm going to do whatever I can do to make sure we don't lose that."

EO: "The Bush Administration faces some serious challenges in coming months, most notably the war with Iraq, Homeland Security and terrorism issues, and the economy. Where do fish, wildlife, and outdoors recreation stand in the Bush Administration given the current world and domestic situations?"

SW: "The most obvious place to look is to see how they've set budget priorities. The president recently came out with his budget and I feel pretty good about the budget that we'll be discussing with Congress.

"The reason that I feel pretty good about it is that despite all of the things that this Administration must deal with, there is still a good understanding of what we need and why.

"With that said, budgets are tight and probably will be tight, which is probably a good thing. We need to prioritize where we spend our dollars and I think that we did that.

"I think it shows that the Bush Administration is supportive of where we think we should go as an agency.

"In spite of the current economic situation, I feel strongly that the dollars that we have for conservation are being spent in the best places possible right now for on the ground benefits for our fish and wildlife resources."

EO: "A recent leadership conference on the future of fisheries in America was held by your agency in Washington, D.C. You stated at the conference that it was time to put the 'fish back in Fish and Wildlife." What did you mean by that statement?"

SW: "A few years back, the Service was regarded, I think, as the premiere government agency in terms of recreational fishing for things like production, management and fisheries science, which includes things like genetics, diseases and fish stocks.

"But through the years, and I don't really know all the reasons why, our budgets were constrained, the hatcheries declined to some degree and the Service kind of lost its luster as far as fisheries management was concerned.

"It became clear to me that this needed to be a priority for this agency. Our budget requests were increased to support the fisheries programs.

"I couldn't be happier for the Service because the President supported our request for more funding. Everything has sort of come together.

"I think at that conference, you could sense the energy and enthusiasm from our people and others who were there to provide the best possible effort in terms of fisheries management."

EO: "What will be the role of the USFWS in coming years in regards to fisheries management?"

SW: "There are a few areas that I would highlight.

"We will continue to provide a role for our nation's recreational fishing, provide for the recovery of endangered and threatened aquatic species and play roles in the advancement of fisheries science, raising fish, and genetic stocks.

"Those are program areas. But in a more general sense, I think our role will be to provide some leadership in the fisheries community and be a true partner with partners like the conservation groups and the fishing and boating industry to help improve recreational opportunities and improve aquatic habitat.

"We'll provide leadership in some regards and be partners in other regards for recreational angling, recovery of threatened and endangered aquatic species, along with playing our role in fisheries science and technology."