Gene Merriam retires after long career in public service

As a boy growing up in Crystal, Gene Merriam relished the wilderness. Wandering in the woods and discovering the wonders within, exploring the swamps, marveling at birds nesting and warbling and flying overhead, learning to hunt and fish … Merriam cherished every outdoor moment of his boyhood days and craved more of the same in the years to come.

Gene Merriam has retired from his position as president of the Freshwater Society. Photo by Sue Austreng
Gene Merriam has retired from his position as president of the Freshwater Society. Photo by Sue Austreng

As an elected official (first as member of the Coon Rapids City Council, 1973-1974 and then as state senator, 1974-1996), as Department of Natural Resources commissioner (2003-2007), as president of the Freshwater Society, and as appointed member of the Clean Water Council and the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, Merriam served the great outdoors even as he so diligently served constituents.

“I’ve always liked being outdoors and it’s critical to protect and preserve the outdoors. To connect people to the outdoors is so important,” Merriam said.

Last month, Merriam announced his retirement from his position as president of the Freshwater Society, but insists his work on behalf of the environment and of the great outdoors will not end.

“I’ve always been fond of the outdoors and that doesn’t end with my retirement,” Merriam said, and sited his work creating the waste management act and his recycling efforts as among his proudest achievements in public office.

Anticipating his passions for the outdoors never wavering even in his retirement, Merriam pledges continued involvement with Conservation Minnesota, Audubon Minnesota, and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which Merriam said has worked harder than any other organization to bring about cultural shifts in recycling efforts.

“I know how important the outdoors can be to living a whole life, to recognizing one’s place in the world,” he said.

Also, he will continue devoting time and energy to the Minnesota History Theatre, and to RISE, Inc. Additionally, the certified public accountant said he will continue as chairman of the board of SFM Mutual Insurance Company. Merriam is also a member of ECM Publishers Board of Directors and serves as an appointed member of the newspaper company’s editorial board.

As for his decades in elected and appointed public service, Merriam said he found great pride in “earning a reputation as a hard worker, an effective worker.”

“I’m most pleased to have been able to dedicate time to public service and make a difference,” he said. “It’s a significant responsibility of citizenship. It’s incumbent on all of us to contribute, and I think I’ve done that.”

Merriam’s decision to retire from the Freshwater Society comes after investing six years in the organization.

Back in 2008, Merriam was asked to serve with the society as its members strove for water conservation protection and restoration.

“I thought, ‘Sure, I could do that for a couple of years.’ That was six years ago,” Merriam said.

During that time, Merriam said he and fellow Freshwater Society members were able to “re-invigorate the society to be an organization of consequence and policy, a source of public education.”

Established by Dick Gray in 1968, the Freshwater Society has been a leading public non-profit organization dedicated to conserving, restoring, and protecting freshwater resources and their surrounding watersheds.

Describing the state of the society at his retirement, Merriam said, “I feel good we’ve been able to attract passionate, knowledgeable people and I feel I’m leaving it in good hands.”

As for retirement activities, Merriam anticipates an opportunity to devote more time to hunting, fishing and birding.

In fact, the avid birder will be spending some quality time in the South Padre Islands, identifying, counting and witnessing the activities of a whole host of birds when he visits a fellow outdoorsman later this month.

“He’s told me I need to learn how to retire, and he’s going to show me a little something about how it’s done,” Merriam said.

To learn more about the Freshwater Society, to get involved, or to stay in touch with the society’s recent studies, discoveries and activities, visit

Sue Austreng is at [email protected]