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A Talk on the Wild Side.

A Look Back: C.S. Johnson

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 new 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.

“On the whole, it is our impression that a lot of people here have a whopping good time in the out of doors…”

You could count on C.S. Johnson to season his required refuge reports with a sprinkling of humor and plain language:

“It has been difficult at times to find compromise between relative efficiency and full compliance with government organization.”

Johnson was born and raised in Michigan. His studies in animal husbandry at the University of Wisconsin were interrupted by service in World War I. He joined the new Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 as a construction foreman and accepted the opportunity to manage the new Seney National Wildlife Refuge when it was established in 1935. 

C.S. Johnson

Managing Seney Refuge for 14 years, Johnson built a refuge from scratch on 153 square miles of burned and denuded pine forest on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Former Seney Refuge manager Tracy Casselman says everyone who visits Seney Refuge owes a debt of gratitude to Johnson for creating such a wildlife viewing oasis from the ruin of man’s greed.  As a manager I am in awe of what he was able to accomplish considering the conditions at the time.” 

Johnson managed CCC workers during the Great Depression and conscientious objectors during World War II, writing in 1944 that “we were up to our necks in trouble with no hope in sight…It can truthfully be said that the main activity of the camp was refusal to work.”

As early as 1937, Johnson recognized the importance of more typical refuge visitors:

“Approximately 3,000 persons visited the refuge headquarters this past year…Refuge plans include a public area, with necessary facilities and show specimens, for if visitors are to be permitted, stage effects are necessarily in order.”

By the beginning of the 21st century, Seney Refuge would host 100,000 visitors a year. His dedicated staff included biologist Elizabeth Losey, an accomplished biologist in her own right, who wrote a history of the refuge and compiled Johnson’s own writings into an edited booklet, In the Words of C.S. Johnson…, available from the National Conservation Training Center.

Johnson left Seney Refuge for a new posting at Lower Souris National Wildlife Refuge (now known as the J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge) in North Dakota, but only two months later, he and his pilot Roy Ferguson were killed in an airplane accident during a routine crop survey.  Although conservation practices have changed since Johnson’s day, successors like Seney Refuge Forester Greg Corace still credit him for promoting prescribed fire before others did and reducing poaching of uncommon species.

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