A Vision for the National Wildlife Refuge System

Jamie Rappaport ClarkFor those of you who missed watching Defenders’ future leader, Executive Vice President Jamie Rappaport Clark, speak at the Conserving the Future conference last week on what’s ahead for national wildlife refuges, we’re posting her insightful speech, here, today.

Jamie, once the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration, charts a bold vision for the future of the National Wildlife Refuge System: “We must better protect America’s wildlife from new and worsening environmental threats, continuing our efforts on conserving ‘trust resources,’ but also by broadening our efforts to identify and conserve those species, habitats and ecological processes that best indicate and contribute to the ecological health and integrity of the refuge system.”

Read the rest below.

National Wildlife Refuge System – Conserving the Future Conference

The Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, California.

Good afternoon. I am so delighted to be here among so many friends and former colleagues. It feels a lot like coming home. National wildlife refuges hold such a special place in my heart. My husband Jim and I were married almost 22 years ago off the coast of Texas, on Matagorda Island where he was the refuge manager. I learned a lot about the system being married to a refuge employee… his fondest memories of his time as a Service employee were his years overseeing the Refuge Training Academy and witnessing firsthand the commitment and passion of the many folks so dedicated to protecting these special lands. As some of you know, both he and my son, Carson are nature photographers, and Blackwater, Chincoteague and Canaan Valley are some of their favorite destinations for shoots near our home. Sometimes, if I promise to be patient and quiet, they even let me trail along with them.

I have visited dozens of refuges over the years, for both business and pleasure. I often find myself reflecting on many of those visits while working in my office in D.C.… a good bit of my conservation career highlights seem to be rooted in those memories… releasing black footed ferrets on Charles M. Russell; watching baby sea turtles erupt out of the sand and scurry to the water at Archie Carr; reflecting on refuge history at Pelican Island as we began to prepare for the System’s centennial anniversary; observing huge flocks of sandhill cranes descend on the flats at Bosque del Apache; hiking over the rise and being overwhelmed at the wallows of walrus on the shore at Togiak; experiencing sensory overload birding at Rio Grande and canoeing the quiet dark waters of Okefenokee with my good friend, Sam Hamilton.

We must conserve wildlife on their terms, engaging the whole ecological neighborhood in refuge planning efforts so that species are protected throughout their ranges, not just inside refuge boundaries.

These memories were all made possible not only because of the refuges themselves, but because of the many people, from the hard working and dedicated refuge staff and volunteers to the partners and friends, that keep the refuges going day to day and provide the experiences of a lifetime.

red wolf

A rare red wolf at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina.

National wildlife refuges have truly played a critical role in the conservation of wildlife and wild places. But they also play a key role for people. As our country becomes more and more urbanized, refuges become even more important… providing a unique experience for so many, both young and old, who might not otherwise have the opportunity to enjoy splashing in the ocean, catching a fish, hiking and birding along trails teeming with wildlife, or kayaking through silent waters. Not only do refuges provide these experiences, but they teach all of us a respect for nature and the true sense of stewardship.

Conservation is becoming increasingly more complex in this warming world. And refuges, as true jewels and anchors of biological diversity, will provide some of the best opportunities for wildlife to survive and thrive in this changing world.

Defenders of Wildlife has been a friend to the refuge system for decades. We have consistently advocated for funding, for expansion of refuges and for recognition of their importance for conservation. I am particularly happy to be here today to continue that support and to cheer on the effort.

I remember well our time in Keystone back in 1998, which was the first large gathering of Refuge System managers and colleagues in history. While some thought it was a risky endeavor to gather that many people to discuss the future of the National Wildlife Refuge System, there was no denying the excitement, passion and electricity as the meeting got underway.

A blue heron.

I was confident then that the decision to assemble a group of folks who loved the land so much was absolutely the right thing to do. There were so many ties that bound that group together… organizational program identities just melted away. We were one Service, one conservation community, working together to conserve and protect our special places set aside for wildlife. I feel that same sense of excitement and commitment here this week in Madison.

As we move forward, let’s not retrace our steps since Keystone, but instead build upon them with new ideas that lead to bold conservation actions on every refuge. The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act has the strongest stewardship responsibilities of any land management statute today. We must hold the line as we look towards the future.

First and foremost, we must continue to put wildlife first and conserve biodiversity in America’s most significant ecosystems, reaching out across generations, cultures and institutional boundaries for help and support. As we step from vision to practice we must ensure that refuges have the appropriate policies in place to ensure that wildlife continue to take first priority in the face of mounting conservation pressures.

We must conserve wildlife on their terms, engaging the whole ecological neighborhood in refuge planning efforts so that species are protected throughout their ranges, not just inside refuge boundaries.

We must better protect America’s wildlife from new and worsening environmental threats, continuing our efforts on conserving “trust resources,” but also by broadening our efforts to identify and conserve those species, habitats and ecological processes that best indicate and contribute to the ecological health and integrity of the refuge system.

We must ensure that refuges remain anchors of biodiversity, articulating a clear strategy for land acquisition that will allow wildlife to navigate through a warming world and the refuge system to adapt and remain relevant in conservation for generations to come.

We must reach out to a wider, more urban, and more diverse audience to help repair the American public’s growing detachment from the natural world and reinvigorate the public’s commitment to protecting it.

We have an important job to do in Madison this week, but that job doesn’t end here. Whether we are refuge managers or maintenance workers, budget analysts or human resource specialists, friends, volunteers or partners – each one of us has a critical role to play in transforming our shared vision into reality. I am confident that we will succeed and am eager to be a partner in that success.

I can think of no one who can help urge us on more than our next speaker. Lynn Greenwalt is a great friend of mine and has been with the refuge system every step of the way. I particularly remember his timeless words as he spoke at Keystone:

“And it is your obligation to… move forward… in a way that does not denigrate, dilute, or diminish in the slightest degree that which came before you. Because many thousands of men and women gave their careers, and some even gave their lives, for what you are working towards… Saving dirt.”

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