CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The news that DNR Director Bob Fala won’t be retained by the Justice Administration was a disappointment this week. Fala penned an e-mail to staff within the agency that Friday will be his last day. Neither Fala nor the administration has commented publicly about the move. It was widely believed by many that Fala would be one of the holdovers now that Governor Jim Justice is on board, but alas, it would appear that’s not the case.
Fala was appointed to the position exactly two years ago by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and in that brief span of time, his impact on wildlife management in West Virginia has been considerable. His most high profile accomplishment was the successful reintroduction of elk in southern West Virginia. The project was one that Tomblin was very interested in seeing through before he left office and directed Fala to get busy. Within two years, Fala successfully led the effort and in December stood to the side and looked on as Tomblin spoke to a gathered crowd with a herd of 24 elk on the landscape in the distance.
Also under Fala, the DNR has added to its public land holdings. The new Forks of Coal State Wildlife Area was created under his leadership from a generous donation of land in Kanawha County at the confluence of the Big Coal and Little Coal Rivers. The property has become the new home of the DNR District offices, more centrally located in the district. He also helped foster an acceptance of the idea of Sunday hunting which won overwhelming approval for private land in eleven counties in November. The state had its first statewide fall turkey season under Fala’s tenure.
What may not be as well known about Fala is what happens behind the scenes. When I speak to various DNR employees from those who handle the day to day tasks of just cutting grass and shoveling show all the way up to high profile members of the agency who are involved in key research and decision making process, they all love the guy. He’s a polite, congenial individual whose nature is to be very unassuming about his stature. I’ve observed Fala on several occasions as he interacts with employees who are under him. He listens to what they have to say. He values their opinions and realizes their worth. He’s equally appreciated by sportsmen who have dealt with him for the past couple of years on a variety of issues. Fala and those sportsmen’s groups may not agree on how things should be done, but his demeanor allows him to handle their issue with grace and respect. You’d never find Fala in a profanity laced shouting match with anybody, least of all the constituents his agency serves. Finally, his respectful attitude and gracious tone have also endeared him to key members of the legislature. He managed to foster a whole new tenor of communication between lawmakers and the DNR, something which had become rocky in recent years amid a number of controversial moves. The frosty relationship between the South Charleston office and the Capitol building had thawed considerably with Fala’s unfaltering efforts.
Fala came to the job uniquely qualified and arguably more qualified than anyone who has ever held the post. He has degrees in which he has worked as a wildlife biologist. He served in wildlife law enforcement with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and prior to coming to work for the DNR he was employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He posses a working knowledge of the state’s coal industry and was familiar with the delicate balance between the economy and the environment. Plus he is an accomplished outdoor writer with several books on wildlife management to his credit.
The Justice Administration has not telegraphed who might replace Fala as DNR Director. Truthfully, they haven’t even acknowledged at this point he’s leaving. However, the position is high profile and means a lot to a lot of people. The new director will face a myriad of challenges, not the least of which is the budget like all other state agencies. A reconsideration of keeping Fala would be my recommendation, but hopefully the new director, whomever it may be, will be as cordial and passionate about the state’s wildlife, hunters, and anglers as Fala.