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Open Spaces

A Talk on the Wild Side.

Conservation in any Language

By: Stacy Shelton, USFWS

A year ago, Jason Holm opened an email that was like so many he’d seen in his long public affairs career: A national wildlife refuge manager was sharing a television news piece on the refuge’s bird festival.

The Pacific Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with Univision to develop this Spanish language public service announcement.

But this time, Holm couldn’t understand what was said. The reporter, from the Spanish language network Univision, was interviewing a Spanish-speaking volunteer at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, an urban refuge in Portland, Oregon.

“We realized there is this whole other conversation going on that we weren’t involved in,” said Holm, the Assistant Regional Director for External Affairs in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Region. “We spend a lot of time talking about relevance, and struggling to reach people, and here’s this entire untapped audience. All we had to do is let them know we are here.”

A growing number of United States residents speak Spanish or Spanish Creole at home. According to a U.S. Census report, the number tripled from 1980 to 2007, to an estimated 34.5 million people, or 12 percent of the population. In the Pacific Northwest, the percentage of Spanish speakers is about 7 percent to 9 percent. Many of them also speak fluent English.

Holm and his deputy, Miel Corbett, began piecing together a Spanish language communications strategy. It started with hiring an intern to translate some of the Region’s stories, and create a Spanish version of the website. Holm also sought out Spanish-speaking Service employees to help with the effort, and found them hungry for the opportunity.

FaceBook graph
FaceBook impressions courtesy SproutSocial

In the year since, the Pacific Region’s social media audience has grown from about 1,200 Facebook fans to 7,750 – more than any other Region in the Service. Many of those newcomers now receiving Facebook feeds about the Service’s conservation work in Hawaii, Idaho Oregon and Washington live in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries.

Holm also challenged his External Affairs staff to learn Spanish or another language commonly spoken in the Pacific Northwest, and offered them Rosetta Stone courses. All five public affairs officers are taking advantage of the opportunity. For his part, Holm is learning Japanese.

The third piece of the strategy was partnering with Univision and Mundo Fox. For a “modest investment,” Holm said the cable channels are producing and running public service announcements on its Portland station. One is a general introduction to the work of the Service; another one shows off the Tualatin refuge; and the last is on the annual bird festival held at the refuge in May.

The partnership also resulted in a one-on-one interview with the Service’s Science Advisor to the Director, Gabriela Chavarria, which aired on the local Univision station in Portland.

Bird festival
Leah Olivares eyes an American Kestrel at the Tualatin River Bird Festival in May. Photo by Miel Corbett, USFWS

Robyn Thorson, the Service’s Regional Director of the Pacific Region, said, “In addition to translating our website materials into Spanish, the partnership with these cable channels has the enormous benefit of helping us better reach the Spanish language constituency that we hope to bring to our National Wildlife Refuges and conservation interests. … We’ve paved the way for [the networks] to take on more content and partnership with DOI agencies.”

Anecdotal evidence indicates the effort is making a difference. At this year’s bird festival at Tualatin River, Corbett, who was born in Mexico, spoke with a family who had seen the PSA on Univision and decided to visit the refuge for the first time, despite years of living nearby.

Holm said not making the effort to communicate with such a significant audience would mean not doing his job.

“In public affairs, we give the American public the information they need to make appropriate decisions. We can’t do that and fail to talk to a significant part of the population,” he said. “Conservation is multi-lingual.”

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