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Conservation in Action Summit
May 27, 2004
Steven A. Williams, Director
US Fish and Wildlife Service

Good morning!

A few days ago, Mr. Greenwalt set this room on fire with his inspiring words. Unfortunately, he has made it difficult for those of us who've had to follow him at the podium.

But what he said really hit home and set the tone for the days that followed. He talked about seeing his old childhood friend Edwin "Drum" Drummond who has been a maintenance worker at Wichita Mountains Refuge in Oklahoma for 55 years. And he's still at it. When asked if "Drum" was considering retiring anytime soon, he said, "No. I'll keep doing it as long as I can get up into that machine. Because I like what I do and I know it is important."

This is good. This is what success is built on: a love of the job and an understanding of its urgency.

Thirty years ago, Mr. Greenwalt served as the Fish and Wildlife Service Director. Words can hardly convey the honor I feel for having this duty passed onto me, especially as I have had the fortune of serving as Director during the Refuge Centennial. That milestone year helped put a spotlight on the wonderful legacy of the National Wildlife Refuge System as we usher it into a new century.

I'd like to start by saying how much I appreciate the dedication all of you demonstrate to the conservation of our natural resources; I appreciate your passion for our outdoor heritage; and I appreciate your hard work and your commitment to the National Wildlife Refuge System. This Summit alone has required real diligence. I saw the size of those binders received: Just lugging them over here was hard work.

But what a week it's been! And what a century! All of the stories you've been hearing about the origins and the champions of the refuge system – Paul Kroegel, Theodore Roosevelt, Lynn Greenwalt himself – are what bring us here and lead us to this point. As Greenwalt said: "The stories are everywhere, which means that they have made it all happen for us. This legacy carries with it an obligation to commit your best – your work, your thoughts and ideas for the Refuge System."

I believe this Summit is proof there is a great deal of devotion to this commitment. When we began planning this Summit, I asked that your invitation list be as broadly representative as possible. You've done that. Individuals, community organizations, local conservation organizations and Friends groups – they all play a vital role in refuge management. They are all represented here. These local voices join with national conservation organizations to help the Service and state fish and wildlife partners craft conservation plans for each refuge. Such collaboration and consensus building also helps develop a shared-land ethic.

We do our jobs in conservation because we like them – and because we know it is important work.. This is the common thread that has allowed us to weave an enormous network of partnerships. Partnerships have been and continue to be essential to the success of conservation in America. The Secretary calls the concept her 4C's – Communication, Consultation and Cooperation – all in the service of Conservation. I call it plain commonsense.

We truly appreciate the opportunity to work side-by-side with all Americans to save our outdoor tradition. We have seen the tremendous benefit to finding common ground with partners along the entire spectrum of conservation causes.

I'd like to single out one group in particular for their work with us, our 230 Friends organizations. We may be able to count the hours they contribute, but their value to the Service simply cannot be tallied. Volunteers – most of them associated with Friends groups – gave more than one-and-a-half million hours to the Service in 2003. That's equal to about 720 full time employees. That's extraordinary. Their participation at this summit has been crucial.

Friends bring to the table a unique perspective. They know the Refuge System from the inside: from working on refuges, running bookstores, delivering environmental education, and guiding visitors. And yet, they bring an outsider's perspective. They can tell us with complete candor what's right with a refuge's management – and exactly what may need fixing. I know many of the Friends representatives here – people like Molly Krival, Ann Smith, Molly Brown. Just knowing that these individuals are here makes me confident that you've had frank and meaningful discussions.

Of course, most of you are Service employees – people who are on the front lines in our fight to conserve the best of America's outdoor heritage. I am extremely proud of your work in the field. Everywhere I go, I see your handiwork. From your fight against invasive species . . . to your innovative breeding programs. . . to your environmental education programs, you have secured for the American people treasures they can never calculate.

As we wrap up the Summit, I'd like to reiterate the Interior Secretary's remarks when she opened this summit: It often helps to look back at the past before stepping into the future. We talked and talked about history during the Refuge System's Centennial. Let me make one general observation: If history is prelude, then the Refuge System is in for a productive and innovative future.

We've come a long way since an immigrant boat builder and some of the nation's finest scientists raised the passions of a president about the indiscriminate slaughter of birds. The ideals of those early visionaries – whose drive and zeal we inherited laid the cornerstone for a network of conserved lands that is the envy of every developed country in the world.

Less than a month after launching the Refuge System, Teddy Roosevelt boarded a cross-country train for an eight-week trip through the West. During his trek through Yosemite, Roosevelt wrote that those who appreciate the majesty and beauty of the great outdoors should join forces with those who wish to conserve our nation's material resources. The result, he predicted, would "keep our forests and our game-beasts, game-birds and game-fish ... from wanton destruction."

The Refuge System is doing just that.

As we build our public use programs, we instill a conservation ethic in others – and the chain that binds our past with our future grows stronger. By providing appropriate recreation, you've united hunters, anglers, other outdoor enthusiasts and concerned citizens on behalf of conservation. As an avid sportsman, I know this to be true; it is what got me interested in natural resources in the beginning of my career and it is something I am grateful for now. Each time I enjoy a top-notch hunting experience on one of our refuges, I strongly re-connect to the essential conservation concerns: that our wild places must remain healthy. I'm certain it is the same kind of feeling that spurred early sport hunters to take market hunting to task. Without sport hunters, there could be no conservation. There would be no Refuge System.

Today, the Refuge System offers the public something that no television program or amusement park can replicate or replace: a chance to connect – through rifle or rod or by camera lens and binoculars – to the glory of our outdoor heritage. As Mike Boylan of the Refuges Division in Alaska likes to say, refuges can help replace virtual reality with the real virtues that an appreciation for nature endows. In a world of increasing urbanization, the role refuges can serve has become even greater. While refuges must be managed carefully to keep the land and water biologically healthy, they must be managed carefully to keep Americans engaged by offering compatible wildlife-dependent recreation. Not just because the Refuge Improvement Act requires it, but because engaged citizens are essential to conservation.

You've integrated that thinking into your deliberations here at the Summit. As a result, I think we have a better understanding of what we are working with now in the Refuge System. We have a strong past, and now an incredible network of partnerships. The decisions we've made here will help us grow on this foundation.

I hail your decision to provide more quality hunting and fishing opportunities, more wildlife observation and photography, and more environmental education and interpretation opportunities.

You've integrated that concept as well when you emphasized that we must maintain and improve the quality of refuge habitats over the next five to 15 years. You rightly identified as a priority the control and eradication of invasive species and the protection of water quality and quantity.

Your decision to enhance the monitoring of fish, wildlife, and plant trends throughout the Refuge System melds seamlessly with Leopold's philosophy and the long-standing beliefs of the Service.

I agree with another of your decisions – that the first step is completion of a system-wide habitat condition assessment to determine the ultimate effectiveness of habitat management efforts.

From day one as Director, I have emphasized the importance of scientific excellence. So I was pleased when you identified as a priority the facilitation of scientific research with management applications on refuges.

Finally, your recommendation that states, local communities and national partners are actively and effectively involved in designing and participating in refuge management programs makes enormous sense.

I want to thank everyone for your time and service here at the Conservation in Action Summit. Your contributions will have lasting impact. You are land stewards. We know that wild lands and the perpetuation of diverse and abundant wildlife are essential to the quality of life.

The real owners of these Refuge System lands are the American people. As public servants, we owe them hard work, integrity, fairness and a voice in the protection of their trust resources. This Conservation in Action Summit embodies these concepts and moves them forward.

The Refuge System has and always will be about the future. After all of the speeches you've been hearing, the break-out sessions you have participated in, the exchange of ideas and debate – the common theme is the future. I'm not talking just about the next ten or fifteen years, but in a more abstract sense – a vision of the kind of world we want for our children, and their children; the future that will become our legacy.

The refuge system is about keeping our natural heritage healthy so that it doesn't get squandered. Aldo Leopold taught us that land is a community of life, and that love and respect for the land is an extension of ethics. If I had to articulate a single broad strategy in accomplishing this, it would be to get people to care about their environment, to get people outdoors to appreciate the natural treasury that inspires all of us here. If we can do that, we can turn heads towards the importance of keeping our natural heritage in tact and sharing in this vision.

As this summit comes to a close, let it also mark the begin of renewed dialogue and a continued sense of commitment to the refuge system legacy. It is, in fact, essential that we keep in touch. As Rollin Sparrowe mentioned the other day, communication is key – and the more we communicate, the better off our National Wildlife Refuge System will be. That said, I look forward to working with your over the next months and the next years to translate your ideas and your ideals into real, on-the-ground achievement.

As Ed "Drum" Drummond says: I like my job and I know that it's important. Obviously, you all do too.

Thank you.



 

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