October 1st, 2014

Culture of Community Anchored in Refuges

By Jim Kurth

Chief, National Wildlife Refuge System

I sometimes wonder how many professions can claim to have friends like we do.

I doubt there are “Friends of the IRS” or “Friends of Podiatrists.” Not that those aren’t noble enterprises, but I doubt that they would draw a loyal following.

What is it about our profession that draws people to volunteer their time and offer money to help? Honestly, it really isn’t about us. People care about the wildlife they find at national wildlife refuges. There is a special sense of place that refuges evoke. People experience more than mere “fun” at refuges. They find deeply personal meanings that are essential to self-identity.

You will hear people talk about “the swamp” or “the beach” or “the marsh” as if there were no others. They talk about my refuge with a reverence and a sense of stewardship. Our Friends and volunteers have a personal relationship with these special places and the wild creatures that live here.

I remember a volunteer who was the first treasurer of the Seney Natural History Association, the Friends organization at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Harold Peters was an 86-year-old retired game warden. He came in every day to count the money from the bookstore and deposit it in the local bank. He would recount stories about his career – stories a lot older than I was.

He told me about the time he was on patrol during the second week of deer season when a big snowstorm blew in and his Model A Ford was stuck in the backwoods all winter. He went back in the spring to discover that porcupines had eaten the wooden spokes off of all the wheels.

His stories were the stories of his connection to the place, and he wanted to share those connections with me.

Refuges draw people from local communities together for a common cause. Many times local communities have rich histories with places that are now called national wildlife refuges. The culture of communities is often anchored in a long-standing relationship with the land. Friends groups are special communities that share a strong connection to their refuge and its wildlife.

These two characteristics – a sense of place and a sense of community – are the essential keys to effective stewardship. Conservation is like politics: All effective conservation is local.

Our Friends and volunteers are the essential core of support for effective conservation. Their collective efforts make a huge difference for the National Wildlife Refuge System. And they know how to have fun. They have my thanks and admiration.

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