When Washington native Matt Hough was a sixth grader in the Trinity School District, he had a conversation with a friend about what they wanted to be when they grew up as they walked home from baseball practice one day.
The friend wanted to be a professional baseball player, a common dream among kids of that age.
Hough, he had different plans.
“I told him I wanted to be a forest ranger,” Hough said with a chuckle.
“When I was 12, I loved to hunt and loved wildlife. I knew I wanted to work in conservation.”
Hough, who just turned 60, did just that for the past three decades. March 27, he retired from his position as Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, a post to which he had risen after nearly 36 years of work within the commission. He was replaced by his deputy director, Bryan Burhans.
Hough attended West Viginia University to pursue wildlife management and his junior year, a profession asked him what he intended to do with his degree.
“I told him I wanted to work for the game commission,” said Hough, whose wife, Jodi, also is a Washington native. “He asked me if I knew anyone. I told him no. He told me that I’d better find a job with the state, any job with the state.”
That summer, Hough got a position at Ohiopyle State Park and continued working there after his graduation until the commission began accepting applications for the new Ross Leffler School of Conservation – where it trains its future wildlife conservation officers – Brockway.
Hough was accepted and upon graduation became a WCO, first in Westmoreland County and then for six years in Washington County.
After that, he took a position at the Southwest Regional Office in Ligonier and continued his rise through the ranks, leaving the regional office in 2010 to head to Harrisburg. In January, 2014, he was appointed executive director to replace Carl Roe, who had resigned in some turmoil regarding his severance package and his attempt to hand pick his successor.
Hough, a no-nonsense, straight-shooter, was the perfect man for the time, helping to smooth over relations between the commission’s Board of Commissioners, who are appointed by the governor, and the Legislature.
“I think I helped improve those relations a lot towards the end,” Hough said. “There were a lot of differences between the board and the legislature. I feel like those relations are a lot better now. I also made a lot of minor changes that improved the efficiency of the commission. We tried to run things more like a business, which I think was good.”
Considering Hough had held more than 10 different titles within the commission over the years, he had inside knowledge of how many of the different divisions worked. That made making changes easier since he had walked in the shoes of many of the workers under him.
He faced a number of other challenges in recent years, from the discovery of chronic wasting disease in the state’s deer population, to balancing rising costs with a limited budget locked into the sale of hunting license fees, to declining revenues from gas drilling.
“I think there are challenges to any job any time you make a change,” Hough said of the different hats he wore over the years. “That was always true, especially when I left the regional office. I was starting all over again. But they were always good challenges. I think the good thing about doing so many different things is that it certainly always kept me interested.”
Now, he can find some new interests after years of performing what was his “dream job.”
The love of hunting and fishing has always remained, though, as Hough quickly learned, one of the drawbacks of working in a position such as his is that it doesn’t leave a lot of time for those pursuits.
“That is the one thing I do regret,” Hough said. “I loved to hunt when I was growing up. When I became a WCO, I found you don’t have time to do it as much as you’d like. And even when you do, it’s different. When you hear a shot, you’re wondering if that was a legal shot or things like that. And I would have liked to have done more with my two boys. Not that they didn’t get to hunt, but it just wasn’t as much as I would have liked.”
All of that said, Hough wouldn’t change the career choice he made when he was still a boy.
“It was all worth it,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better career. It’s kind of been a fairy tale, dream come true for me.”
Outdoors Editor Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.