- Lynn Burkhead
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EDGEFIELD, S.C. — About a year ago, agribusiness leader George C. Thornton was content to rest upon the laurels of a lifetime spent in business and civic leadership, and retire to his Creekside Farm in Elberton, Ga., with his wife, Beth.
That all changed after Thornton, 58, was named new CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation in June, assuming the reins of one of North America's leading conservation and pro-hunting organizations.
As the replacement for outgoing CEO Rob Keck, who resigned earlier this spring after two senior staffers were relieved of their duties, Thornton has been very busy since assuming his new post.
In an interview with ESPNOutdoors.com the day after his appointment by the NWTF's board of directors, Thornton indicated his first order of business was just outside the door and around the corner from his new office.
"The most important thing (now) is just becoming familiar with the staff," Thornton said.
"(I will be) making myself known to our people, getting to know them and having discussions with them individually and collectively about the priorities of the organization — and how we stack those up so that we make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
"And, I'm going to be completely focused on meeting the needs of our membership and the goals of our mission."
Thornton dismissed the notion voiced by some in other corners of the outdoors media that the mission of the NWTF is basically complete, now that wild turkey restoration has occurred in much of the suitable habitat found across North America.
"First of all, we are at the highest plateau right now that the Federation and the wild turkey has ever been on. And that should be celebrated," Thornton said.
"But at the same time, it is a very fragile plateau, too."
How high has the plateau risen? Started in 1973, the grassroots organization has grown into a powerful conservation group today with more than 550,000 members in all 50 states, Canada, Mexico, and 14 foreign nations.
And since the NWTF's founding, wild turkey numbers have grown immensely: An estimated 1.3 million wild turkeys roamed the continent in 1973, compared to current estimates of over 7 million.
So successful has the wild turkey's comeback been in North America that turkey hunters have increased from 1.5 million in the mid-1970s to some 3 million turkey hunters today.
Despite such lofty goals reached, Thornton reminds turkey hunting enthusiasts there are many challenges ahead, including changing land use patterns, facing new economic and agricultural issues, and confronting social changes in American society.
"(With all of that), it's not too hard to imagine us losing ground (some day) on the conservation and hunter advocacy side," Thornton said.
"While it is a time to celebrate — and everyone associated with the NWTF should be honored — it would also be a big mistake to say that our mission has been accomplished."
Thornton, most recently president and CEO of Agriliance, LLC, knows his organization must be able not only to effectively deal with current realities facing the organization, but maintain their relevance in the future by remaining at the forefront of emergent issues.
"Our baseline is to continue what we're doing now ... that's our line in the dirt," he said.
"But the best time for an organization to reinvent (itself) is when they are at the top of their game."
The new NWTF CEO says his organization is in fact "arguably at the top of its game" right now and maintains it is incumbent upon the organization's staff to stay ahead of the curve into the future.
Part of that will include NWTF exploration for ways to make accessing quality hunting land somewhat easier than it is now in many places.
"Growing up in Georgia 40-plus years ago, all you had to do was to knock on a door, ask permission, and then go hunt after school for things like quail, rabbits, etc.," Thornton said.
"Then I woke up 30 years ago, and someone said if you want to hunt here in Texas (where he had moved), it's going to cost you thousands of dollars.
"And of course, that's happening in many other states now."
Thornton believes there are answers to the hunting land access issue and that his organization will be at the forefront of helping to provide solutions for such problems all across the U.S.
"It will take strong collaboration with our sister associations and the Federation," Thornton said. "Conservation groups of all wildlife species must understand what each other is doing and then engage in a cooperative way with federal and state governments (to help solve this problem)."
Thornton says that the NWTF will also be hard at work to learn how to effectively recruit new and younger hunters into the sport.
In addition to continuing — and in some cases, fine tuning existing programs like the NWTF's highly successful JAKES program (which targets getting youth involved in hunting and wildlife conservation), Thornton is also big on personal involvement focused on expanding hunting's ranks.
"I get the biggest kick out of taking a young person hunting ... watching them enjoy the experience, and (seeing them) catch the fever while learning the responsibility that comes with hunting," he said.
Thornton says that such experiences provide an incredible environment for heart-to-heart discussions about life and its various experiences.
"What you get with the outdoors experience is a one-on-one bonding with the generations that is magical," said the husband of 38 years and the father of two adult children. "It's the fabric of life for all of us."
Thornton said that in addition to the bonding that occurs between a parent and child, a grandparent and child, or a mentor and a young person, the outdoors experience can also provide important lessons that aren't readily learned in front of such abstract items as video games.
"Young people that hunt, they get a feeling of pride when they get an animal and have thoughtfully completed a hunt and have successfully executed the various strategies involved," he said.
"Plus, they learn about land stewardship, develop a respect for the animals, and (learn) that they have taken a life (for) a food resource (within) the cycle of life."
While such matters are obviously very much on Thornton's mind, there are other serious issues on the radar screen — most notably, the fallout from Keck's sudden departure and ongoing litigation filed by two former employees — that could make Thornton's new post a potentially challenging one.
"With respect to the stormy waters (that the NWTF is facing), I believe that the most effective thing I can do is to make myself freely available to our membership and for our conversation (work), whatever the current and future needs are," Thornton said.
"I will listen very carefully to others about maintaining a congruency with our membership's needs and to seeing what we need to be doing.
"I think that (just) being available will go a long ways."
Thornton also pointed out that while he is indeed the new head man for the NWTF, he will be very quick to point out the many other talented people who have made the organization what it is today.
"The organization is not me, or two or three people, or even 10 people," Thornton said. "We have a wonderfully talented staff here.
"Rob has been a fabulous ambassador and is to be respected and honored for everything that he has done. But there are a lot of other people that have a lot of talent and passion and we need to get them out and have them recognized (for their expertise and contributions)."
Thornton added that he has requested that the NWTF's board of directors be readily available to help communicate to the organization's membership and sponsors so that group's future can be mapped.
When asked what he would like the thousands of NWTF members, sponsors, and supporters across the country to know about him, Thornton took a moment or two to reflect before answering.
First, Thornton said that he is a passionate hunter.
"I've loved hunting all of my life — in fact, at my last job, we made a corporate decision to make hunting our corporate form of entertainment," he said.
"On the King Ranch in Texas, we took literally hundreds of agribusiness people and farmers and rural leaders there for a world class and unique hunting experience, for fellowship, for discussion, and for business building experiences."
Second, he is passionate about land stewardship and wildlife conservation on both a large and small scale.
During his time spent helping to manage his company's hunting activities on the vast King Ranch, Thornton took delight in helping ensure that the land was as good as or even better than it had been found.
Similar commitment to land stewardship and wildlife conservation is also easily seen on Thornton's personal farm about an hour's drive from Edgefield.
"I hunt every chance I can get," Thornton said, before adding that "my real love is managing my own land for wildlife habitat improvement — for turkey, quail, deer, and dove, and for the fish in two nice fishing lakes."
In fact, such work is simply his way of life.
"I think I'm just hard wired that way," Thornton said. "It's the way I grew up. I love the land, I love watching a piece of land develop through proper stewardship, burning, and planting.
"To me, it's like sculpture on a grand scale."
And third, the new CEO in Edgefield wants his constituents to know that such values fuel his deep commitment to the NWTF.
"I would want them to know that I am honored and humbled beyond expression to be fortunate enough at this point in my life to have been given this role," Thornton said.
"I am here out of passion — I didn't come here to take a job. I believe in the Federation, in hunter advocacy and in land stewardship.
"This is what I want to do with the rest of my working life," Thornton added. "I'm here in Edgefield, I'm available and I have an open door policy. If someone has ideas on how they can help make the (Federation) stronger, I want to hear those."
Thornton also had something to say to those who are wild turkey hunting enthusiasts but are not currently a member of the NWTF.
"I would tell them that they are missing a tremendous opportunity to network with a wonderful group of people who have wonderful values," he said.
"So if they have any interest at all in an outdoor wildlife experience, this is one of the places they can come to meet similar individuals who are interested in conservation and land management on their own lands.
"We've got a staff of biologists second to none that is at their disposal. If they simply believe in environmental protection and in setting up sustainable wildlife situations, I can't think of a better organization they can support.
"And we need their support."
And that's straight from the NWTF's new boss gobbler himself.
George C. Thornton has assumed the reigns as organization's new CEO