A Talk on the Wild Side.
|Jennifer Owen-White shares her love of wildlife with members of the Youth Conservation Corps. Credit: USFWS|
Jennifer Owen-White is the first refuge manager for Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the first official urban wildlife refuge in the Southwest. For now, Jennifer is the refuge’s only employee, which means she does everything from planning outdoor experiences to meeting the refuge community to writing lots of reports.
5 questions for Jennifer
1. Did you grow up in a city? If so, where, and what enabled you to develop a connection with nature? If not, why is urban outreach important to you?
I was born in Chicago and grew up in Houston. As a kid I found my love for wildlife, especially reptiles and amphibians, by catching frogs and snakes in the bayous behind my house. I also found my love for interpretation and sharing my passion for wildlife in those same bayous because in the summer I would often catch as many species of reptiles and amphibians as I could and would put together a little exhibit for the other kids in the neighborhood. I would spend my mornings catching the animals and spend the afternoons telling everyone who would listen as much as I could about them. Of course at the end of the day I would let all the animals go so I could start new the next day.
2. How do you keep a connection to nature while living in an urban area?
I can find nature all around me, you just have to know where to look. That is one of my favorite things about my job is helping others find the great stories in nature that are all around us. Also, living in Albuquerque is amazing because we have a vibrant city with museums, arts, culture and lots of great food, but then we have so many outdoor recreation experiences in the immediate area. I can go hiking, biking and exploring after work, and in the winter I can go snowboarding.
|Children get excited about nature. Credit: USFWS|
3. Why is a connection with the natural world so important?
Honestly, I feel like a connection to the natural world is so important to managing my stress and emotions. I love my job and work really hard at it, and in order to refresh myself and keep performing, I sometimes have to just put on my binoculars and go birding or herping (looking for reptiles and amphibians). Nature is restorative and healing. A couple years ago when my mom passed away suddenly, it was a mountain climbing trip in Wyoming that helped me deal with my grief and put me on the road to moving forward. I don't know how I would be or where I would be without my connection to nature, it keeps me balanced and motivated.
4. What outreach event to an urban audience have you taken part in that has been most productive and why?
I can't really name one event because as a whole I am so proud of all the work we are doing to build the new Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. Even though we just completed the purchase of the land, the refuge Friends group, volunteers and I are working really hard to get the community involved from the very beginning. This is a refuge established, designed and built by the community for the community, and that is so exciting. I often tell people that it is not my job as the refuge manager to build this refuge; it is my job to help the community build its national wildlife refuge. My job is to put the community's amazing ideas together with sound science and engineering to create something that is sustainable for wildlife and people. Because of our emphasis on outreach, the refuge is becoming well known in the Albuquerque area and thousands of people have already visited the site and attended events to give their ideas and show their support for Valle de Oro NWR. For a refuge that has only one staff member, and none of the traditional features of a refuge (at least not yet): no buildings, no trails, just farm fields; this community involvement is incredible and exactly how we think a refuge should be born.
5. What is the best way to spark interest in urban kids -- adults, too?
For me it was reptiles and amphibians, but I think everyone has their favorite animal and that is the beauty of it. If you can find out what resonates with a person and find a way to connect their interest to our work in conservation, you have formed a bond that will last much longer than a single interaction and hopefully spark that person's continued interest in wildlife and the outdoors. This is truly why I love my job: I have found my love for conservation, and I hope that I can use my passion for wildlife and their habitats to help many others find their own special bond with nature.
|Some of the groups involved. Credit: USFWS|
With 80 percent of Americans living in cities, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made it a priority to forge a connection between nature and urban communities. We are doing that in many ways, including our Urban Refuges, our Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships and our Urban Bird Treaties. We consistently reach out to people who may be unfamiliar with or uncomfortable in the wild through programs to help people get the most out of our wildlife. Our efforts will pay off for them -- regular time in the outdoors has been shown to benefit physical, mental and emotional health – for the community – natural systems provide us with clean air, water, jobs and lots more – and for us – as we develop a new generation of conservationists.