Outgoing Commission Chairman Martin Pushed agency to stop ‘kicking the can’
BY Jim Harris
July 5, 2023
Managing Editor Arkansas Wildlife Magazine
One summer night two years ago, Arkansas Game and Fish Commissioners and other agency staff were meeting at Stan Jones Mallard Lodge near Alicia, in northeast Arkansas. Bobby Martin, beginning his sixth year on the Commission, had just been voted by his fellow commissioners as chairman, and summer had officially arrived.
“I will never forget the night. We were meeting with the staff and it was 11 o’clock at Stan Jones’ lodge, and we were talking about these challenges we had,” Martin recalled. “We had heard the presentations from our biologists and decided enough was enough and we were no longer going to kick the can down the road.”
Martin was referring to one of the most pressing challenges then facing the agency: crumbling infrastructure in its greentree reservoirs and, as a result, the dying of timber crucial to migrating waterfowl. The commissioners decided they would figure out ways to get it done. It didn’t hurt that Martin was not only an outdoorsman all of his life, but a successful businessman, having served as CEO for Walmart International (and is currently the chairman and interim CEO of Gap, Inc.). Martin said, “The fact is, the (AGFC) staff had been ready to take on this task for a long time. It’s one thing to have a vision and strategy, and another to have a state of readiness to do what’s planned. So when we stopping kicking the can like we said and called an end to that, the staff had a readiness, the capability, the competency and the skills to immediately kick our plans into action or we wouldn’t be seeing the progress we’ve seen in these two years.”
“The day that you became chairman, we hit the ground running,” Anne Marie Doramus said to Martin at his last Commission meeting, when Martin’s fellow commissioners, all showing levels of raw emotion, offered parting words. “It wasn’t July yet and we were meeting about GTR renovations. And we were working together. And we were working under a new younger leadership in Director (Austin) Booth … And I thought then, ‘I’ve got to keep up, he’s all business.’ But it has been a pleasure and honor to work with you. And I love you, Bobby.”
In two years with Martin as chairman, the AGFC has taken off in tackling projects that seemed to linger through the years. No longer “kicking the can down the road” seemed to be the defining point made that night for Martin’s last two years on the Commission. The approach would fully involve the staff and a revamped directorate led by Booth, who in 2021 became the first director in nearly two decades to be chosen from outside the agency.
“It was a time of vision, of focus,” Commissioner J.D. Neeley said, “It set the tone, to get to watch Bobby and some of the leaders plan. I quickly saw Bobby’s heart, his passion. It really stuck with this group. It was a feeling of, if we need to address it, let’s do it. Let’s roll up our sleeves and tackle the problem.”
Martin’s seven-year term on the Commission ended Friday, June 30. The 74-year-old Martin officially passed the gavel to Jones, the newest chairman, at the Commission’s June meeting. Neeley moves into Jones’ vice chairman role.
Martin’s connection with the AGFC began in 2011. Witt Stephens Jr., a former commissioner, introduced Martin to Steve Smith of the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, and Martin then chaired the Foundation for four years.
“I had a bit of a running start … It gave me good insight” into the agency, he said.
Then, Asa Hutchinson tapped Martin for the Commission in 2016. As a foretelling of what lay ahead for Martin in his busy seven years on the Commission, though, he arrived just five months after chronic wasting disease, a fatal illness for deer and elk, had been confirmed in the state. The first question he fielded from the media as a Commissioner was what he was going to do about CWD. He said he had a ways to go before he could answer.
He was aware before taking his chair for his first meeting that a major issue facing the agency was shrinking hunting and fishing license sales. And, besides the growing infrastructure problems with greentree reservoirs, the agency found itself dealing with aging lakes and broken water-control structures in some major fisheries. A few popular lakes were seeing the appearance of invasive aquatic vegetation such as giant salvinia, which was choking lakes in Texas and Louisiana. Invasive carp had become another problem. The AGFC also was dealing with dwindling habitat for turkeys while, at then Chairman Fred Brown’s urging, beginning a restoration of the northern bobwhite.
Martin was a believer from the beginning in “R3” – recruitment, retention and reactivation – for reversing license sales and drawing more people back into the outdoors, and in his second year on the Commission, then Chairman Steve Cook made Martin the head of the ad hoc committee for R3. Like so many areas during his time on the Commission, Martin said he “dove in.”
In 2020, the U.S. was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which actually helped push more people outdoors because social distancing became the rule of the day. What better place to distance than in the outdoors?
Martin, who had helped raise the money for a shooting range in Jacksonville while with the foundation, put his talents to use for northwest Arkansas to bring the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center to that region in 2021. He’s also spearheaded an effort to bring a new public shooting range to the region.
Aging fisheries facilities have been given their due during the last seven years as well. Thanks to an angler-supported raise to trout permit fees, the Jim Hinkle State Fish Hatchery underwent an extensive renovation and is now back to 100 percent capacity, capable of producing up to 2 million trout per year. Lake Poinsett in northeast Arkansas and Lake Monticello in southeast Arkansas have undergone total renovations, and infrastructure problems at Lake Elmdale in northwest Arkansas have been tackled. As Martin was headed out the door, the AGFC announced a complete renovation of the 75-year-old Craig D. Campbell Lake Conway Reservoir, which will be the largest lake renovation in the agency’s history.
“We have the public really understanding the challenges, and that’s due to our public relations and marketing and being out with the public to talk about this,” Martin said. “That’s something I’m so proud of.”
When he reflects over his years as commissioner, he says, “I think you can look back and see that every group of commissioners has had a wide range of challenges, but during this time we’ve continued to see public interest and engagement grow and expand.”
Pursuing more money through federal grants became a new focus during his time. With additional funds, the agency pursued other opportunities for land acquisitions to boost public access.
“A state agency is always limited on resources to do the work it needs to do,” he said. “The work was always big enough without having challenges come on. Tackling projects the size of the ones we’re tackling, you have to take a longer look at what you’re doing, where you are going, and bend the curve to get yourself back in a stronger position.”
At a special event honoring Martin the night before he handed the gavel to Stan Jones, Martin was hailed by his fellow commissioners and others as “passionate,” “humble,” “efficient,” “a leader,” “a steward” and “an energizer.”
Jones said, “Bobby did a job and put a lot of work into it.” And, a lot said seems to harken to that summer night two years ago.
“Sometimes, commissioners don’t always agree,” Jones said. “I’ve heard about some things in the past and some of (the commissioners) didn’t, and they didn’t accomplish as much. But somehow or another we all got together and we all got on the same page, and we do agree on a lot of things. And we’ve been able to accomplish a lot because all of us are on the same page.”
Martin told the agency staff at his last Commission meeting that nothing could have been accomplished without their service.
“When I think about the seven years overall, it has just shown me things that early on I thought I knew, and then by the time you go through it you move from thinking about it to knowing it’s true. I think we have the greatest wildlife agency in the country. I know that sounds self-serving but I don’t think it anymore. I know we have the best people, the best biologists, the best game wardens, the best leadership.”
Martin said that serving as a commission was “a rich, rich, rich experience. It’s probably going to be one of the richest for me in my life.”
Martin announcement: Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed Martin to the Commission in 2016.
Martin with youth: Martin was a driving force behind the building of the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center in Northwest Arkansas.
Martin at table with students: Martin tackled controversial messages like need to protect Arkansas’s greentree reservoirs with a calm demeanor.
Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter E-mails
Don't miss another issue. Sign up now to receive the AGFC Wildlife Weekly Newsletter in your mailbox every Wednesday afternoon (Waterfowl Reports are published weekly during waterfowl season and periodically outside the season). Fishing Reports arrive on Thursdays. Fill in the following fields and hit submit. Thanks, and welcome!