HELENA — Supporters of Martha Williams sang her praises Tuesday as the Montana Senate considers whether to make the attorney and former university professor the leader of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which is one of the highest profile agencies in the state.
Williams, who most recently taught natural resource law at the University of Montana, was nominated by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock to succeed Jeff Hagener as FWP director. On Tuesday the Senate Fish and Game Committee heard testimony during her confirmation hearing. If successful, her confirmation will be considered by the full body.
Nobody at the hearing testified against her confirmation.
Williams highlighted her personal history growing up on a farm, and her legal history as a former attorney for FWP, as solicitor for the Department of the Interior and as a law professor. Her life’s work and being an outdoorswoman helps her recognize the importance of the agency to Montana, she said.
“I promise to focus on making Fish, Wildlife and Parks efficient and resilient so that we can ably address and adapt to challenges we face now and will face in the future while serving as the stewards of the resources of this great state and the opportunities they represent,” she told the committee.
Williams said she has heard from the Legislature a need to build FWP’s credibility and follow through on commitments the agency makes. The way to accomplish that goal is to pull together and pursue stronger partnerships outside FWP, she said.
About a dozen rose to speak in support of Williams’ confirmation, including conservation and agriculture groups, former students and colleagues, the CSKT Tribe and her son, Ian Williams, who spoke about seeing his mother work long hours as Montana faced federal delisting of wolves and as a professor preparing for class.
Cascade-area rancher and former legislator Emily Hibbard said she believes Williams will be a leader when dealing with contentious issues.
“In my acquaintance which goes back around 25 years, Ms. Williams has consistently shown herself to be a woman of great integrity,” Hibbard said. “She has dignity, grace, knowledge when she speaks, depth and diplomacy, someone who cares. Ms. Williams has dedicated her career to law and her life to the land and the people of Montana who inhabit it.”
Clay Miller, a former wildlife biologist and current third-year law student at UM, said he and other students saw Williams draw from a variety of viewpoints to understand that science or law alone would not always offer solutions.
“Martha understood the complexity of issues surrounding our natural resources, and went to great lengths to bring this awareness to her students,” he said. “She was one of the few professors that reached across campus to bring scientific expertise into her classrooms, teaching her law and policy courses to students in the college of forestry, division of biological science and environmental studies.”
Under questioning from lawmakers, Williams’ legal training was shown in measured answers to policy questions such as FWP’s responsibility to landowners when elk populations exceed objectives. FWP works under the laws the Legislature passes, she said, and the agency must approach issues such as landowner relations and access carefully.
When asked if FWP planned to acquire more land, which has become a sticking point for some lawmakers, she said she saw no imminent purchases but would hate to lose the option of purchasing land.
On the subject of enforcement and a funding shift that could push game wardens away from enforcement, at least in part due to concerns about “militarization” of the division, Williams said the debate need not be about “blue jeans versus battledress.”
“I think our game wardens have a duty to work with people as the interface of our agency as best as they can. Should they have proper safety equipment? I think so too,” she said.
When asked by Bullock to become director, Williams said her two conditions were a clear line of communication and the administration’s support of Montana State Parks. The parks division has faced a number of budgetary issues, which along with aquatic invasive species, have dominated her short tenure as acting director, she said.
When asked about her vision for FWP, Williams said she has a low tolerance for petty differences or camps. She feels that her role as director is to bring people together both inside and outside the agency, and to operate in a transparent way that the public can understand.
“I think often people can live with decisions that aren’t just what they want, when we’re much better at explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing.”