Ryan J. Brown grew up in Fork Union, Virginia, the son of a farmer. “All there was to do was work on the farm and escape from the work on the farm,” he recalls. “And the escape happened to be the outdoors.” To Brown, now the executive director of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), each season in the commonwealth has its poetic pastime: deer and dove hunting when the leaves turn; turkey hunting in chilly April dawns; the summer peak of boating and fishing. Even after he earned his law degree and worked in private practice, his passion for the land made the far less lucrative offer to supervise the DWR’s forty-eight wildlife management areas, totaling more than 230,000 acres, irresistible.
But wildlife management and land conservation weren’t enough. He felt that, as the twelfth most diverse state in the country, Virginia, and particularly his agency, needed to do a better job of making all Virginians feel welcome outdoors—and in turn, recruiting an even broader set of conservationists to care about their surroundings. In 2021, he established the DWR’s first Office of Diversity and Inclusion, then helped Virginia become a pilot state for the Relevancy Roadmap, an initiative of the Wildlife Management Institute, with help from the Metropolitan Group, to boost interest and engagement in conservation.
“DWR’s mission is to conserve our wildlife for the benefit of the public,” Brown explains, “and to connect all Virginians, of all demographics and backgrounds, to outdoor experiences.” Right now, “we exist due to financial contributions by our hunters, anglers, boaters, and wildlife enthusiasts in the form of license purchases and other expenditures,” he continues. “We learn best how to serve our existing constituency—and how to attract future outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen to all our wildlife has to offer— when we are informed by a full range of voices representing all of Virginia’s citizens.”
Two years into his tenure, the agency earned the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ Diversity and Inclusion Award. For Brown, these initiatives are just the start of encouraging more people to see and care about what he’s known since childhood: “We’ve got the best product on earth to sell. There’s something in the natural world for everyone.”
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Expertise: Natural resource policy
Location: Richmond, Virginia
Executive director since: 2019
What’s in a name? When Brown became executive director of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, he knew the name had to evolve. “I would get phone calls from people thinking they were calling the Gaming Commission wanting to sponsor bingo,” Brown says. Thanks to Brown’s ease with both legalese and a sportsman’s shorthand, the agency became the Department of Wildlife Resources in 2020.