For more than 45 years, Joe Mickey has been aiding in efforts to clean up waterways and fighting to protect the waters of North Carolina for the creatures and people who rely on them for survival.
In September, the long-time Elkin resident and Winston-Salem native will be traveling to Cary to accept the prestigious Water Conservationist of the Year award during the North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards program.
Mickey said recently he wasn’t even aware he’d been nominated for the state award until he received an email informing him of the honor. “I had no clue. I thought it was some kind of joke,” he said, noting that he’d retired in 2006 as stream restoration coordinator from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission where he’d served as a fisheries biologist and technician since 1972.
Several leaders in the community had been working on a nomination packet collecting letters of support for his nomination and supporting documents showing his work both while he was employed with the commission as well as since then through his volunteer work with Watershed NOW and the Elkin Valley Trails Association.
When he first started with the wildlife commission after graduating from Gardner-Webb University, Mickey said one of the projects he worked on was influencing mining regulations in regards to in-stream gravel mining. He said the companies would actually mine the gravel from streams, which did a lot of damage to the trout habitats.
Another project he worked on was sediment erosion control, especially near road construction projects. Mickey worked with the U.S. Forest Service and N.C. Department of Transportation on regulations to address erosion control. “That kind of led to updating the environmental control in construction in general,” he said.
In the early 1990s, Mickey said he became interested in stream restoration. “I was probably one of the first ones in the state, if I wasn’t the first I was probably close, to doing natural stream restoration and design,” he said.
For the first five years of his career, he was working in Morganton, but when a position opened up in the Elkin area, he and his wife chose to move to be closer to where they grew up in Winston-Salem.
Why work with the environment? Mickey said he blames it on golf. “Golf got me into wildlife, because I was so bad at it my golf balls were always in the woods or the creeks, and I’d have to go looking for them and I’d find a snake or turtle or something a whole lot more interesting than golf, so I gave up golf and would wander through the woods,” he said.
The love of the outdoors was ingrained in Mickey from a young age, as his mother loved working in the garden and his father would take he and his brothers camping and hiking. He also was a Boy Scout.
During his teenage and college years, Mickey worked on the staff at YMCA’s Camp Hanes in King.
“I just always enjoyed the outdoors. I went off to school and ended up majoring in biology. I knew I wanted to work outside,” he said. “I just always enjoyed the outdoors and working with the environment, and I like a good fight with the regulators to see if we can get things changed.
“The environment has come a long way since I got start,” Mickey said. “A lot of generations out there have no clue how much better things are now than they were when I started work. It was pretty much do whatever you want in the ’60s and ’70s.”
In previous years, he’s also received the honor of the 1988 Governor’s Award as Soil Conservationist of the Year; the 1992 Trout Unlimited Silver Trout Award; the 1994 American Fisheries Society Southern Division First Place Best Paper Award; and the 1995 Water Quality Professional Achievement Award from the NC Chapter of the Soil & Water Conservation Society.
Colleagues who wrote letters in support of Mickey’s nomination, which he said was spearheaded by Elkin Recreation and Parks Director Adam McComb, included Woody Faulk of Watershed NOW; Bill Hutchins, who worked with him at Camp Hanes; Bill Blackley on behalf of Elkin Valley Trails Association; Kim Bates, Surry County planning director; Bill Meyer, superintendent of Stone Mountain State Park; the Rev. Stuart Taylor, his pastor and leader of Watershed NOW; Daniel White, Surry County Parks and Recreation director; Elkin Mayor Sam Bishop; and Mary Mascenik, with the Yadkin Valley Garden Club.
“Most of us have worked with Joe, volunteered with him on ecology projects, experienced his living example of stewardship of the earth and were enriched by his hard work, dedication and successes in his conservation efforts,” Blackley wrote in his letter. “His deep interest and efforts for conservation are life long. Illustrative of his early interest, his mom said that as a child ‘Joe came out of the woods with a small bird perched on a limb, determined to save it.’”
Blackley wrote, “Joe’s diligent and steady focus has been and continues to be the conservation of our natural world in its most natural state.
“Biologists who worked with him in the Wildlife Commission continue to call and meet with him for guidance. Friends and strangers from across the state call Joe for wildlife and conservation advice. In his work life and in retirement, he has been a mentor to those interested in ecology including friends, clubs, non-profits, youth in schools, scouting and church. He has always taken the initiative to stimulate interest in the health[y] preservation of the world around us.”
In his final words, Blackley said, “Persons who have known Joe since 1970 say that even back then he was just as concerned about the environment as the ecologists of 2018. They said he realized where the world was headed back then, what action was needed, and he was willing to step up and make a difference. Ecology has been and continues to be his professional and recreational mission in life.”
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.