Refuge System Chief Jim Kurth and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region deputy regional director Charlie Wooley have known each other for 48 years. They met as thirdgraders in Columbus, OH; played high school football together; first visited Alaska together in 1975; graduated from the University of WisconsinStevens Point together in 1978. They have never served at a field station together, but when Wooley was a biologist at the Panama City, FL, fisheries office in 1979, he alerted Kurth to his first Service joba Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge position. This spring, Wooley received a Department of the Interior Distinguished Service Award and Kurth received a UWStevens Point outstanding alumnus award. Here are excerpts from a recent Refuge Update interview with them.
Q. How did your path into conservation evolve when you were a young man?
Kurth: Charlie and I spent a lot of time in the outofdoors. We used to skip out of high school and go fishing. That love of being outofdoors was part of it. The environmental movement was also just starting, and we were probably among the first generation of Service people who had both a love of the outdoorsof hunting and fishingcombined with a concern over the environment and ecological change.
Wooley: The other activity that we had access to was a landgrant university, the Ohio State University ... There was actually a university that had courses in conservation and biology, wildlife and fishery management. There was a field of study right in line with our personal interests [even though neither graduated from Ohio State].
Q. How would you summarize your personal philosophy of conservation?
Wooley: Its pretty simple for me. Its making a difference. Ive always had a strong sense of trying to make the world a better place for the next generation. I think that we in the conservation movement are always looking to provide something to somebody else. Ive always viewed the work that the Service does as an opportunity to do that.
Charlie Wooley: Weve learned that theres a certain responsibility that comes as you get into upper level management situations. Probably the most important is hiring and advancing good people.
Credit: Charles Traxler/USFWS
Kurth: Any of us who are graduates of UWStevens Point have a strong founding in the land ethic that Aldo Leopold talked about. You cant live in that part of the world and go to that institution without it becoming a bedrock of your conservation philosophy. Our philosophies have evolved. The role of people in conservation is very different than when I first started. We used to feel that the way to keep wildlife first on refuges was keeping people out. Weve learned that when people can use and enjoy wild places and wildlife, theyre going to become stronger supporters of the conservation movement.
Q. In the time you have known each other, what are the most important changes in the conservation field?
Kurth: Certainly, the role of technology is huge. I was on my fifth refuge before I had a computer on my desk. Weve also seen, as there are more people and more of the land is fragmented, that we have to work at landscape scales. To set up a refuge and it be an island in a sea of development isnt going to be a successful way of conservation. So, we have to work at landscape levels and figure out how to have core protected areas that are buffered with easements or other working landscapes so we can have the scale and connectivity in habitat to ensure sustainable populations of fish and wildlife.
Wooley: Im going to turn it back a little bit and say there are some things that havent changed. There have been some people that Jim and I looked up to early in our careers who were conservation heroes: [former Service Director] Lynn Greenwalt; [current Director] Dan Ashes dad, Bill. There are people like them in the Service and the conservation movement today, toothe same kind of incredible personalities and strengths of character. That ethic is being passed on.
Q. In that time, what are the most important changes in the Service itself?
Wooley: Weve learned that theres a certain responsibility that comes as you get into upper level management situations. Probably the most important is hiring and advancing good people. Weve really done a good job in the Service starting about 15 years ago with training programs at NCTC. Getting good people into training programs, recruiting them into the Service, keeping them in the Service, and then letting them develop into leaders. We take a lot pride in that.
Kurth: Weve made significant progress in being more diverse. We have a long ways to go yet. But it was pretty much a white male organization when we started, and Im really proud today when I look at our Service Directorate, at the deputies group, at project leaders at meetings. We are coming to be more diverse. It was important to recognize in our Conserving the Future vision that, if we want to have a conservation constituency, we have to have more role models who come from all segments of society.
Jim Kurth: We used to feel that the way to keep wildlife first on refuges was keeping people out. Weve learned that when people can use and enjoy wild places and wildlife, theyre going to become stronger supporters of the conservation movement.
Credit: Deborah Rocque/USFWS
Q. What are the biggest challenges to conservation that have arisen?
Kurth: To me, theres certainly this twofisted problem of accelerating change to the climate systems and a growing population that continues to fragment the landscape.
Wooley: One of the more frustrating things is: We make progress in one arena and, as were making progress there, another issue pops up that we hadnt anticipated. I mean, we would never have been talking about climate change 20 years ago; then we were talking preserving endangered species, recovering species, protecting habitat. Theres a certain sense of frustration in all these environmental perturbations were trying to solve.
Kurth: When we were in college, I dont think either of us would have ever believed that the New England cottontail now would be in worse shape than gray wolves in Wisconsin are. Gray wolves were considered extirpated in Wisconsin then, and now . . .
Wooley: . . . theyre delisted, off the endangered species list.
Kurth: Weve recovered grizzly bears and wolves and bald eagles and pelicans and alligators, and yet theres a whole host of other species now threatened with extinction. The challenges continue to change and emerge.
Q. Jim, what is the one word you would use to best describe Charlie as a friend and a conservationist?
Best. Hes my best friend, and he is certainly one of the best in the conservation business. He is a renowned biologist and an accomplished conservationist. There just arent many better in the business.
Q. Charlie, what is the one word you would use to similarly describe Jim?
Tenacious. I would have used best, too, if it hadnt been taken already. There have been some very difficult situations that Jims been in as a professional that he has handled remarkably well. There have been political pressures that have taxed his environmental philosophy, his moral compass and the tremendous amount of environmental ethics that he has welling up in him, but he hasnt cracked.
Q. What conservation goal would you like most to attain in the rest of your Service career?
Wooley: Its been remarkable the last three years to be part of the Obama administrations Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Instead of an initiative, Id like to see it become permanent, so that the American public and the Canadian public have an opportunity to see the Great Lakes restored. It takes a long time. It takes dedicated funding.
Kurth: What Im most excited about doing in this phase of my career is helping to build the next generation of conservation leaders, to find the right people and to encourage them, to help them in any way I can to aspire to lead our Service and our conservation efforts. Its very much about the people to me at this stage. I really enjoy, more than anything, seeing talent blossom.