Oklahoma outdoors: Charitable foundation working as Wildlife Department's ally
For Rick Grundman, executive director of the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Foundation, the love of the outdoors began at age 1 with his first Christmas gift.
"A little Zebco casting rod and a plastic plug and I was up on the stairs at the house with a sand bucket at the bottom, practicing casting," Grundman said. "I was just eaten up with it as a little kid. Loved the outdoors. Loved to fish. Loved to hunt. Loved to hike. Being outdoors is restorative to me."
As a college student at the University of Texas, Grundman helped pay college expenses by guiding waterfowl hunters along the coastal marshes of Texas.
Now, after almost 25 years working in the natural gas industry, Grundman finally has another outdoors gig. He is the first executive director of the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization created to support the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
The foundation is about two years old, and Grundman was hired as its first and currently only employee on July 1. Grundman was lured out of retirement to take the job.
"The plan was I was going to hunt and fish a whole bunch (in retirement)," said Grundman, who lives in Tulsa. "I came back to do this as a passion project."
Grundman's primary duty as executive director is to raise money to support Wildlife Department projects.
Since July 1 when Grundman came aboard, the organization has raised about $250,000. The funds have been used to help buy a new fishing dock at South Lakes Park in Oklahoma City, to supply Oklahoma foster children with rods and reels and their foster parents with fishing licenses, and to provide deer blinds for youth hunts in Beckham County.
In the near future, the OWCF plans to help the agency pay for repairing the water supply line to Hackberry Flat in southwestern Oklahoma.
"It is a critical waypoint for migrating waterfowl and other birds and monarch butterflies," Grundman said. "The water pipeline that allows the (Wildlife) department to keep the habitat available has passed its useful life cycle and no longer working so we are going to be focusing on relining that pipe, almost 18 miles of pipe, to bring water back to this world-class migratory wetland."
Grundman said the OWCF, which has a board of 10 members that includes country music star Blake Shelton, is dedicated to conserving and promoting Oklahoma's outdoor heritage for current and future generations.
"We are not a part of the Wildlife Department, but our entire focus and mission is toward supporting the department and its strategic plan and its mission," Grundman said.
Like other wildlife conservation organizations that donate funds to the Wildlife Department, money raised by the OWCF can be used by the agency to obtain matching federal dollars for projects.
The advantage of giving money to OWCF, as opposed to directly donating funds to the Wildlife Department, is the charitable organization can "cut through bureaucratic red tape at less cost and in a more timely manner" on some projects, Grundman said.
"Our focus is on how do we work in collaboration with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to move forward on projects that they believe are a priority but they can't fund as quickly as they would like to," Grundman said.
Helping modernize the century-old Durant Fish Hatchery is another project the OWCF hopes to assist with, he said. The Wildlife Department is primarily funded through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and fees. The agency receives no state tax dollars, so OWCF can become a vital ally.
Other states have used a similar model. Grundman said the current gold standard is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.
"They have been in place for 20-plus years, but they also include the state parks, so it is not an apples to apples comparison, but they have raised actually a quarter of a billion dollars worth of assets," Grundman said. "They do quite a bit of variety of things."
Grundman has taken a job of building a fundraising organization during a pandemic.
"It's challenging," he said. "I am not going to lie."
Grundman said many people around the state still don't know about OWCF and its mission.
"We are trying to introduce ourselves to a lot of people and companies around Oklahoma and like-minded people who want to preserve our outdoor heritage and wild spaces and wildlife," he said.
OWCF often will be competing for the same charitable dollars that national conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation and others are after. OWCF works with those groups, but the foundation's sole focus is Oklahoma, Grundman said.
Grundman said he is willing to listen to any ideas to improve wildlife conservation and the Oklahoma outdoor experience.
"We can't be everything to everybody, but I am willing to speak to anybody who has an idea on a project that moves the needle," he said.
For more information or to donate to the OWCF, go to OKwildlifefoundation.org.
Reporter Ed Godfrey looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @EdGodfrey. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.