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Fishing with former Park Service superintendent Michael Finley

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TRAIL — Michael Finley’s early years at Southern Oregon State College was all about spending the rest of his lifetime with his fingers in other people’s mouths.

“I was really going to be a dentist,” Finley says between fly casts on the upper Rogue River’s Holy Water impoundment immediately below Lost Creek dam.

But he parlayed two summers of fighting wildfires out of the Rogue River National Forest’s Starr Ranger District into a summer gig on a three-person helicopter wildfire attack crew in Yellowstone National Park, which forever changed his trajectory.

“I was in the air a lot over Yellowstone,” Finley recalls. “I was in the Yellowstone backcountry all the time. I fell in love with Yellowstone’s backcountry. That’s when I changed my mind and decided to try to work for the Park Service.”

That decision embarked Finley on a career that saw him serve a trifecta of superintendentships at the three flagship national parks — Yellowstone, Yosemite and Everglades.

Now he’s fresh off an eight-year stint on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, four years of which as commission chair.

And Finley is staying in Southern Oregon, partaking in the outdoor pursuits of his youth while finding some new haunts in places like the Holy Water, where he had never wet a line until we waded in together on a recent rainy Wednesday.

As a college student in the late 1960s, he fought against the building of Lost Creek dam on the main-stem Rogue and couldn’t accept partaking in the classic tail-water fishery this and other dams create.

But he accepted my recent invitation to wet a line here.

“I had a hard time adapting to using it,” Finley says. “But it’s time to give it up. You can help me embrace it.”

Embracing his place within the park service has been a 32-year passion for Finley, who left seasonal firefighting in parks like Yellowstone for his first permanent park service job at Big Bend National Park along the Rio Grande River in Texas, a place far more beautiful in winter than summer.

“In the winter, it was as clear as Union Creek,” Finley says. “In the summer it was dead cows floating down the river, and the occasional body.”

He spent a decade in Park Service law enforcement, hopschotching the country in law enforcement and other projects, including undercover work corraling poachers and others abusing the public resources.

“There’s a certain excitement that goes with it, and there’s a real good feeling when you’re taking some bad apples out of the park system,” Finley says.

He moved into management earlier than many of his peers, looking to focus more on resource protection than some of the superintendents of the time.

“That’s when I changed, when I watched some of these people bend to politics, including local politics,” Finley says. “I figured I could at least do as good as some of these guys.”

In 1978, he landed in Washington, D.C. as the park service’s legislative affairs specialist, learning the political ropes of the rob, then bounced around parks in Maryland and Alaska before landing his first superintendent job in 1986 at the Everglades National Forest.

There, he managed an ecosystem that included 13 federally endangered species, a baptism that boded well for him at future stops as superintendent in Yosemite in 1989 and Yellowstone in 1994 until his retirement from the park service in 2001.

At Yellowstone, he not only oversaw the re-introduction of wolves to the ecosystem but literally helped carry the first re-introduced gray wolf into the park.

After 32 years in the park service, he went to work as president of media mogul Ted Turner’s foundation, working on global sustainability projects and fishing and hunting some of Turner’s massive land holdings until retiring from that gig in 2016.

He’s remained in Southern Oregon in semi-retirement, eschewing other park service retiree bastions like South Florida and Montana.

Staying in Southern Oregon where he grew up fishing the Rogue River and Diamond Lake while hunting upland game birds was a no-brainer for Finley.

“It wasn’t a hard decision,” Finley says. “You look at around some of these national parks, there’s a colony of retirees in some of the most beautiful places in the world but they’re not Southern Oregon.”

A life-long rock hound, Finley can’t pull himself from 10,000 square miles of land to hunt for petrified wood and geodes, nor can he live more than two hours from the ocean and 45 minutes from ski slopes.

While fishing the restrictive Holy Water for stocked rainbow trout for the first time, the notion of catching and releasing stocked trout with barbless flies does not go without context for Finley.

“I have evolved,” he says, recounting days of pulling treble hooks from the mouths of Diamond Lake trout as a kid before going barbless well before it was required.

“The driving force was to limit out,” he says. “Then it wasn’t necessarily catch and release because I knew I couldn’t get in the back door of my house without one or two fish because my wife had a penchant for fried potatoes accompanied by fish.

“But then, at Yosemite and Yellowstone, I’d come home and she’d say, ‘Did you catch some fish?’ And I’d says, yes, they’re in the river.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

191226 OO MT Fishing the Holy Water with National Park Supervisor Mike FinleyThumbnail
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Michael Finley of Medford, former Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission chair, fishes the Holy Water section of the Rogue River.