Asking good questions is an art. Shea Hammond, wildlife specialist at Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge, is well on his way to becoming a master. The refuge is closed to the public, yet it is so connected to community that its education center was donated by a local admirer and an abutting landowner is seeking to establish a conservation easement.


The refuge sits atop karst topography in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. Commonly referred to as “the Bat Refuge,” it is known for protection of the Ozark big–eared bat, the Indiana bat, the gray bat and other species found in its numerous caves. Researchers and citizen scientists come for a chance to study bats; students and tribes come to learn about caves; Scouts and other wilderness explorers come to test their survival skills in the remote eastern Oklahoma location; and, perhaps most impressive, individuals come to participate in workshops designed to connect them to the natural world.


That’s what puts this refuge on the map. When Hammond describes the partnership he has developed with the Ozark Tracker Society to provide Deep Nature Connection workshops, as he did at a National Conservation Training Center class last year, he gets to the heart of a major part of Conserving the Future: Wildlife Refuges and the Next Generation. He’s a passionate U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee on a one–man refuge who brings together people of all backgrounds, abilities, ages and ethnicities, and he encourages them to immerse themselves in nature.


The society and the refuge have hosted half–a–dozen Deep Nature Connection workshops. The workshops are funded by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. They feature facilitators skilled in the art of questioning, a strategy designed to enhance participants’ knowledge, comfort and abilities in the outdoors, and to test the edges of their curiosity.


I attended one of the weekend–long workshops in January. It focused on Bird Language, a program pioneered by environmental educator Jon Young. Bird Language seeks to teach participants not about bird identification but about a larger awareness of the interactions between people and birds in their natural surroundings. Through a process of slowing down, focusing on the present moment and asking questions, participants begin to relate in new ways to birds, the outdoors and one another.


The Deep Nature Connection workshops often take place at the refuge. But because of weather and other considerations, 60 of us met at Lake Fort Smith State Park in Arkansas about two hours away. Veterans, teachers, hunters, developers, people with disabilities and families welcomed one another. Included in this diverse mix were nine interpreters from other Arkansas state parks. Already comfortable guiding people outdoors, they came to learn new questioning techniques.


The log cabin accommodations added to the ambience. Inside, stone fireplaces became gathering spots for eating and sharing stories. Outside, Lake Fort Smith brought sounds of geese, ducks and kingfishers. Around dusk, raptors, songbirds and an occasional deer would reveal themselves.


It was gratifying to watch how facilitators gently guided participants to experience deeper connections with the surrounding wildlife and with each other. I came away convinced that what’s going on in the Ozarks can serve as a model for the entire National Wildlife Refuge System.


Outreach to the community obviously takes many forms. Million–dollar visitor centers are wonderful assets. However, there are many other ways to make a lasting impression. By asking the community what it wants and responding, Hammond is developing the next generation of conservation stewards. This is part of what Conserving the Future is asking us all to do.


The Refuge System is often described as the front porch of the Service. Shea Hammond has pulled up a chair and is listening.


Anna Harris is the Refuge System’s Conserving the Future coordinator.