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Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation executive director Kell McInnis, right, with Sam Barbera, assistant executive director of the LWFF. Mcinnis will preside over Thursday's A Wild Night, the foundation's fundraiser, before he retires at the end of the year. Barbera has been chosen to take the foundation's top job Jan. 1.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY JOHN BAL

Thursday night is beginning of the end in Kell McInnis’ public life.

And it’s the beginning of the rest of his life.

McInnis announced plans to retire at the end of the year. For the masses who don’t know what he’s retiring from, just know he’s the man who elevated the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Foundation from only what can be best described as a shoebox operation to one of the most meaningful operatives for the state’s tens of thousands of those who enjoy the outdoors.

He took the job about 15 years ago and became the LWFF’s first executive director. Through his fundraising efforts, his ability to channel grants and one-time federal dollars — all enchanced through private donations — he played an ever-growing role in filling the gaps in Department of Wildlife and Fisheries funding.

It’s here where an explanation is needed to explain the foundation’s vital role. The LDWF operates on self-generated funds and does not dip into the state’s general fund. The only state money it gets are residuals from the sale of the state’s special largemouth bass license plates.

And Thursday night, McInnis’ brainchild, A Wild Night, runs for the eighth consecutive year at Live Oak Arabians Stables off Jefferson Highway in Baton Rouge.

Doors for the sumptuously catered affair open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are pricey at $200 per couple and $1,000 for a reserved table for eight. It’s a fundraiser with highly valued and donated auction items.

Thing is, the folks who anticipate this gala every year know where the money is going.

Try tackling projects like this, and it’s easy to understand the need for a foundation, which most times is providing seed money to get regional, state and national projects off the ground.

Among other accomplishments:

The LWFF partnered with other groups in the expansive artificial reefs projects in coastal waters;

Enhancement of waterfowl and habitat projects on several state areas;

BP-Deepwater Horizon disaster funds on behalf of the state’s Seafood Marketing and Promotion Board, and using those fund to support a nationwide Louisiana Seafood First campaign;

Reintroduction of the whooping crane into the state;

Construction of dozens of VHF stations across the state to help monitor North America-wide migratory birds and waterfowl telemetry projects;

Assisting in programs like pushing the Baton Rouge area-based Hunters for the Hungry into a statewide program, recruiting youth into outdoors education, Archery in Louisiana Schools, Becoming an Outdoor Woman and Wetshops, a summer school session for educators around the state to enhance knowledge of the state’s outdoors and ourdoor activities, and providing classroom materials for as many as 200 educators each school year.

“Very proud of all those programs,” McInnis said, adding the most recent big feather in the cap is the 10 percent start-up commitment the foundation provided for North American Wetlands Conservation Act applications for millions of dollars of work to enhance the Pointe-aux-Chenes WMA and the recently completed $2.5 million project at Wham Brake.

“From where we were, we were able to grow and take on additional responsibilities for fundraising and coordination with the department,” McInnis said. “You know we live from disaster to disaster with funding. We were able to absorb the dollars as they come in and support and put those dollars back into the department’s programs affected by those disasters.”

It was money the LDWF could not have otherwise obtained. The foundation and McInnis’ attention to the details allowed the state agency to be as effective a funding mechanism as it has become.

McInnis headed the LDWF on an interim basis some two decades ago, and drew on that experience to move the foundation forward.

“I was blessed back in those days to have adequate funding (for the LDWF), but the cost of business has risen and (state) revenues not kept pace,” he said. “So for us to have these programs, it was imperative the foundation be in position to raise funds to support those programs.”

And how groundbreaking were those steps taken in the first years after the foundation was established in 1995?

So much so that 22 years ago, foundations in other state numbered only in the low teens. Now as many as 42 states have similar funding mechanisms.

“We are just a conduit for things like hunter education, and we know this is making a difference,” McInnis said.

Sam Barbera has been named his successor and will take over Jan. 1.

“Kell’s shoes will be big shoes to fill,” Barbera said. “It’s difficult to know just how many in our state have been affected by his hard work over these many years.

“When I interviewed for this position, I told them it was my dream job and I was interviewing for my last job,” Barbera said. “I wanted the board to know my dedication was on the same level as Kell’s. He’s leaving a legacy to follow and it’s a privilege to be able to work with him an learn the ropes from him.”