Every so often it's good to look into the past to revisit the people who got us where we are today. Looking Back is a series on the people who helped shape the National Wildlife Refuge System. The series is based on "A Look Back," a regular column written by Karen Leggett, from the Refuge System Branch of Communications, which appears in each issue of the Refuge Update newsletter.
When Forrest Carpenter retired in 1973 after 36 years of federal government service, he became the founding president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the nonprofit organization that supports the Refuge System.
“When he realized he could do something that would help refuge managers and the Refuge System that he believed in so strongly,” says his daughter Susan Evans, “he felt he had to do it. He worked harder on that than anything in his life for 13 years.”
He published the NWRA newsletter from his home basement and lobbied for dedicated funding for refuges as well as organic legislation that eventually would become the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997. The act defines the mission of the Refuge System and guides many of its management practices.
Carpenter was born in 1914 in Oregon, where his father was one of the first employees of the U.S. Forest Service. He began his public service during the Great Depression in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then became a clerk at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, OR, before soon transferring to Upper Mississippi River Fish and Wildlife Refuge and later becoming refuge manager at Des Lacs Refuge, ND.
Two of his four children were born on that refuge.
From 1958 until his retirement, Carpenter was refuge supervisor in the Mississippi Flyway region. He played a major role in selecting and training a large corps of refuge managers. One of his goals for the NWRA was to provide a voice for these managers. He valued their opinions and wanted them heard.
“Refuge managers were constantly in our home,” recalls Evans. “I have many memories of visiting refuges and sitting on the lap of J. Clark Salyer.”
Carpenter was also very aware that refuges required long-term planning. In 1975, he told a Senate subcommittee that, “by its very nature, the Refuge System cannot be managed on the basis of short-term, ever-changing priorities. Wildlife responses to habitat changes take years, even decades, to reach the desired status … The National Wildlife Refuge System must plan and work for the needs of generations not yet born. It often takes many years to fulfill these needs once they are identified."