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NRC honors Don Inman for lifetime commitment to conservation and outdoor recreation

The Michigan Natural Resources Commission honored longtime conservationist and retired Michigan Department of Natural Resources Deputy Don Inman with the Thomas L. Washington Award for Lifetime Commitment to Conservation and Outdoor Recreation at its Dec. 14 meeting in Lansing. Among his many accomplishments, Inman, of Presque Isle County, is credited with initiating the drive to develop the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Inman began his DNR career in the early 1970s after earning a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University and conducting research under Eugene Odum, a pioneer in the field of ecosystem ecology, at the University of Georgia.

In 1974, Inman was charged with developing an environmental impact statement for proposed oil and gas drilling in the Pigeon River Country State Forest as part of his work in the DNR’s Environmental Enforcement Division.

“The Pigeon River Country was considered pristine and revered by many. Environmental groups jumped on the bandwagon when oil and gas came on board,” said Inman. “Leases were already in place on the land, so there wasn’t anything that could be done to stop extraction.”

Inman felt compelled to find a way to mitigate the damage that would be caused. His solution was a proposal to use extraction revenues to purchase and preserve new recreational lands.

“Jack Bails, my supervisor, he was the negotiator. He worked with the companies and [then] Gov. Milliken’s office and found a way to lessen the impact by giving back to the environment,” said Inman. By 1976, the idea became a reality with legislative approval of the Kammer Recreation Trust Fund bill, the precursor to today’s Natural Resources Trust Fund.

In the last 47 years the Trust Fund has distributed more than $1.3 billion in grants for over 2,800 projects. “Who would have thought,” Inman chuckled. “Really, who would have thought?”

Inman is quick to credit others, including Bails, Bill Rustem, then executive assistant to Gov. Milliken, and the conservation-minded people of Michigan who called for environmental preservation. “Do you know how many supported this idea? It was like we were riding a wave of good environmental legislation.”

One of those voices was Tom Washington, then executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, for whom the lifetime commitment award is named. During his life, Washington helped build coalitions of conservationists and environmentalists to achieve landmark initiatives that benefit Michigan residents to this day.

What might Washington think of Inman receiving the award? “Tom was a mountain of a guy, in so many ways,” said Inman. “We may have butted heads from time to time, but I think he’d be pretty happy.”

Inman later became chief of the Environmental Enforcement Division and testified as an expert witness for the DNR in several enforcement court cases. He remained with the DNR for 26 years, retiring in 1997 from the position of deputy director for the Lower Peninsula, but his career in conservation continues.

In 1997, he and his wife, Virginia Pierce, co-founded the Michigan Resource Stewards, an organization of environmental resource professionals working to “advance professional stewardship of Michigan's natural resource legacy through sound scientific principles.”

He and Pierce also serve with and continue to support the HeadWaters Land Conservancy, protecting lands in 11 counties in northeast Michigan, including their own 500-acre homestead.

“Don Inman was among the first generation trained in environmental ecology, seeing the bigger picture of interrelationships between natural systems,” said NRC Chairperson Tom Baird. “He brought that perspective to the Department of Natural Resources, embodied it in the push to develop the Natural Resources Trust Fund, and he lives it to this day, working to protect lands and fight for Michigan’s environment.”

Award nominations are submitted for consideration by a member of the NRC and chosen by commission members in consultation with the DNR director.

For more information about the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, visit

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is committed to the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state’s natural and cultural resources for current and future generations. For more information, go to

An accompanying photo is available below for download. Caption information follows.

  • Inman: Don Inman, recipient of the 2023 Thomas L. Washington Award for Lifetime Commitment to Conservation and Outdoor Recreation, with Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections and daughter of Thomas Washington, for whom the award is named.