When Mike Finley was about to graduate from Medford Senior High School in 1965, acting Principal Alex McDonald had had about all he could take of student hijinks.

When Mike Finley was about to graduate from Medford Senior High School in 1965, acting Principal Alex McDonald had had about all he could take of student hijinks.

No doubt the one hanging him in effigy was the final straw.

"We were on the edge of bad behavior a lot," Finley recalls. "We knew how to study but we also knew how to play. At that stage in life, we wanted to play harder."

The principal gave the 35 seniors a severe scolding in an effort to make them pore over their books.

"He said, 'You are the worst group of individuals I've ever seen and none of you will amount to anything'," chuckles Finley, 62, who retired as superintendent of Yellowstone National Park in 2001.

That same year, at the request of friend and media mogul Ted Turner, Finley became president of the nonprofit Turner Foundation Inc.

Whether the principal struck the right chord or the group of pranksters were ready to move into adulthood, Finley is quick to observe they produced more than their fair share of upstanding members of society, from doctors to members of the Secret Service.

As president of the Atlanta-based Turner Foundation, Finley helps decide who will receive millions in largely conservation-related grants each year. The foundation works with governments and nongovernmental organizations around the globe to improve quality of life.

The Medford native and Lillie, his wife of some 40 years, have two grown daughters. The couple moved back to Medford after he retired from the park service.

Retirement in his case is relative, however. It means frequently flying to Atlanta on foundation business, and from there on to board rooms in places such as New York City, Moscow and Geneva, Switzerland, to work with decision-makers on proposed projects that may include anything from salmon habitat restoration to renewable energy proposals. But his job also takes him to check out various projects from the arid plains of Africa to the remote Kamchatka region in Russia.

The Nature Conservancy has been the beneficiary of some $2.5 million in Turner Foundation grants since 1992, says Stephen Anderson, spokesman for the Oregon chapter.

"The foundation has been a strong and valued partner in funding a wide range of conservation projects throughout the West," Anderson says. "A lot of our funding comes from private individuals but foundations such as Turner's have a huge role in doing good, science-based conservation work across the country and around the world. They obviously can't fund everything so they have to prioritize. That makes us all more effective because they require all their projects to be based on strong scientific criteria."

Finley figures his Rogue Valley roots prepared him well to deal with everything from the world's movers and shakers to flicking out a dry fly on the Zhupanova River in Kamchatka, where he and Turner were a year ago in September.

"My father took me hunting and fishing," Finley says. "And my mother took me to San Francisco and introduced me to culture and food. So I grew up being comfortable in the woods as well as in the urban environment."

But sometimes Finley can't help but shake his head in amazement at his retired life.

Consider his visit in 2007 to Geneva, where he was representing Turner while meeting with the current Baron de Rothschild and others who each donated $1 million to the Peace Parks Foundation, which is establishing parks around the world to bridge boundaries of former warring nations. Turner is one of those donors.

"There I was at this huge estate overlooking Lake Geneva where there were white-gloved servants and dinners with eight or nine different courses," he recalls. "I was even shown the desk where the Treaty of Versailles was signed to end World War I.

"I remember thinking, 'I never thought when I was lighting smudge pots in Medford that I'd ever be having lunch with the Baron de Rothschild overlooking Lake Geneva.' I suppose I had a similar thought when I first saw the Red Square and looked at the Kremlin."

The child of the Cold War graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology in 1970 from what is now Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he met his wife. He fought wildfires for two summers as part of an elite hot-shot crew based in then-Rogue River National Forest to earn money for college, then spent two summers as a seasonal firefighter at Yellowstone National Park.

The love of working outdoors prompted him to drop his plans to become a dentist and join the park service, where he would work from Alaska to Florida in a variety of jobs. Before taking the top Yellowstone post in 1994, he served as superintendent of Yosemite National Park for five years and superintendent of the Everglades National Park for three years.

Like his government work, his foundation's efforts are apolitical, Finley stresses.

"Because of my public service, I've been an independent my whole adult life," he says. "I've worked with both Republicans and Democrats. Our goal in the foundation is to help future generations. It doesn't have a religious or political stamp on it. We just want to leave the planet better than we found it."

The foundation has funded projects to help protect small woodland owners in Maine, help create sustainable commercial fishing in Alaska, defend biodiversity by protecting habitats in Asia and launch projects to help the nation's youth. It also promotes access to family planning and reproductive health services.

"We find ourselves going to wherever we can look to someone's self-interest to remind them of their link to nature, remind them of nature's service and how they have skin in the game," he says. "When they become aware of how it can help them, they often become allies in the movement for a more sustainable economy and a more sustainable environment. The two are really linked."

Taking economic benefit from the land while taking care of it is a conservative approach, he says.

"There is nothing more conservative in this world than not wasting what we have, not living beyond our means," he says. "I can't think of anything more conservative in principle than protecting our environment."

Turner is a simple businessman who understands that reducing waste, whether it be energy or pollution, is a financial gain in the long run, Finley says.

"This isn't political at all," he stresses. "This is about doing the right thing for future generations, irrespective of politics.

"We've overfished our oceans. We've overgrazed our lands. We've polluted our air and our water. Collectively, we've not been very good stewards."

As he works to encourage people worldwide to become good stewards of the land, he continues to marvel where his work has taken him.

After Turner's group began supporting the International Crane Foundation, Turner asked Finley in March 2005 to help establish the groundwork to protect the no-man's-land between North and South Koreas.

"We have rare cranes that use the area to rest and feed," Finley explains of the demilitarized zone between the two countries.

The zone is 150 miles long and some 2.5 miles wide. But it also has a wide area known as a civilian conservation zone where seasonal agriculture and cranes coexist, he observes.

"You've got a swath maybe ten miles wide that is useful for wildlife habitat," he says.

Unfortunately, both sides are bristling with land mines and troops armed to the teeth.

"But the middle is more protected than Yellowstone," he says. "You've got rare plants, wetlands, Asian leopards, trees. There are salmon and trout in the DMZ. It's probably the most biologically diverse piece of land in all of northeast Asia."

By April 5, 2005, Finley was in Beijing, meeting with Chinese, Russian, Japanese and Korean scientists to work on crane migration. August of that year found Turner and Finley in North Korea, followed by a visit to South Korea, inspecting the crane protection area.

Meanwhile, back in Medford, Finley has joined his high school class reunion committee for next year's 45th anniversary.

"When you grow up and leave town, you keep coming back to reunions where someone else did all the work," he says. "Since we live here again, I wanted to be there to help this time."

As of yet, there are no plans to hang anyone in effigy.

Reach Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.