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Conservation in Action Summit
May 25, 2004
Bill Hartwig, Chief
National Wildlife Refuge System

Good morning and welcome again to the Conservation in Action Summit.

You heard a lot of speakers and presentations yesterday. Well, today and tomorrow, we're putting you to work. Each of you has been assigned to breakout sessions that, after two full days, will lead us to identify measurable priorities to guide the Refuge System for the next five to 15 years.

But before we split up, I want to provide some overarching thoughts.

I want you to think about three issues this morning:

First, what trends can we identify that should guide the Refuge System's second century? What will those trends mean for the Refuge System over the next five to 15 years – and beyond?

Secondly, what actions can we take that will heighten public awareness and support for the Refuge System? How can we act more like a System?

And finally, how do we serve a more urbanized America? How do we become loved – without being loved to death?

Before I discuss these points, let me answer a question you may have asked yourselves. Why this is called the Conservation In Action Summit?

Of course, we are all interested in conservation and we all want to create action but we can't claim credit for such an appropriate title. Rachel Carson coined the term. Rachel Carson was not only a conservation giant, but also a Fish and Wildlife Service employee.

While serving as our editor, she created a series of information brochures, first appearing around 1947 and issued until about 1953 or 1954. The series was titled Conservation In Action.

It was probably the first time we did any public outreach about refuges. The series gave the public details about the habitat and wildlife we conserve and what people can see on refuges. That was before the phrase "wildlife-dependent recreation" was widely used – well before the Refuge Improvement Act was signed.

In fact, that was the era when we were still debating the wisdom of promoting refuges, the wisdom of inviting people onto our lands. We didn't even think visitor levels were important enough to begin counting until 1951.

Yet, even 57 years ago, we recognized that public knowledge stimulates interest and support.

Today, we understand more clearly how public support drives every issue, including conservation. The very health of the Refuge System depends on our ability to build public support.

We've done great, initial work in communications. From our revised Visitors Guides – complete with up-to-date maps – to our shows on the ESPN network, we are talking right to the people.

That brings me to my first point. We can only communicate effectively with the public if we understand who they are. We do not control the public trends but we must understand them. We must understand what these changes mean for the Refuge System.

In fact, the face of America has changed dramatically over the last few decades. It is continuously changing.

In April 2001, the Commerce Department announced that the new U.S. population center is Edgar Springs, Missouri, a rural community with about 190 residents. In 1900 – just three years before the Refuge System was founded – the population center was Columbus, Ohio.

Way back in 1850, the center of our population was Petersburg, West Virginia – a town not too far from here.

It's no big surprise that the population center has moved steadily westward. Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Utah are the states that saw the fastest population growth during the 90s.

Here are a few more facts to consider: Between 1990 and 2020, the number of people between the ages of 65 and 74 is expected to grow a whopping 74 percent. Over the next two decades, most baby boomers will reach retirement age.

How do all those facts influence how we should build support for the Refuge System? How do we plan visitor centers, for example, in light of those facts? Do we include more trams on refuges because we know that a huge segment of tomorrow's population may not be able to walk close to wildlife?

Consider one more major demographic fact: The population of the United States is becoming increasingly diverse. In 1970, Hispanics and minority racial groups made up just 16 percent of the U.S. population. By 1998, the percentage had grown to 27 percent.

If current population trends continue, by 2050, these groups will make up almost half of the U.S. population. Hispanics will be the largest group among minority groups.

How will that impact the Refuge System?

I can tell you how it has already touched us – and how we have responded. In the mid 1990s, refuges in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas found that their Spanish-speaking neighbors didn't understand how our refuges were benefiting their community. No wonder: none of our brochures were in Spanish. We simply weren't communicating.

Region 2 refuges launched an Ambassador Program – especially successful in South Texas. As part of that campaign, they published brochures in Spanish. They produced Spanish public service announcements for local radio stations. They invited their neighbors onto the refuges.

They built a relationship that has grown each year.

The first step was making refuges relevant to the community – talking in the community's language.

We're doing the same in the Refuge System as a whole. We look forward to issuing the condensed version of our visitors' guide in Spanish in the next few months.

My point is simple: We must come out of this Summit determined to make our refuges relevant to the communities we serve. We must achieve our mission to conserve wildlife and habitat for the people and we must be seen as good neighbors.

Keep in mind that most visitors travel an average of 32 miles to reach a refuge. In essence, our visitors come from the "neighborhood."

Secondly, how can we act more like a unified System, sending a single image, a single message to build the public support we need?

This will be a significant challenge. We just discussed our need to be local. But at the same time, we must – as our legislation directs – be a National System of wildlife dependant lands.

At the time of our Centennial, we manage 544 refuges containing 100 million acres and we manage them one at a time. Each has its own individual mission and varying degrees of community support.

We average 7 people per staffed refuge. Almost 200 refuges are unstaffed. The work is difficult but rewarding. We have the best employees in America. They are smart and dedicated. However, they are overworked.

This past year we hosted 40 million visitors compared to 3 million in 1951. And our refuge employees manage each acre for the price of a Big Mac and fries.

The pressure will increase as Americans' love affair with the outdoors blossoms. About 82 million Americans participated in wildlife-related recreation, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service 2001 National Survey. They spent about 108 billion dollars.

Do these outdoor enthusiasts know the Refuge System? Millions do. Just ask the people here from the Sport Fishing Association, the Boone and Crocket Club and Ducks Unlimited. More than 16 million visits to our nature trails, nearly 27 million visits to see our wildlife and about six million fishing visits – those clearly illustrate that people across the country know what the blue goose symbolizes.

The number of Friends groups – so well represented here – has skyrocketed past 230 – and still growing v because people have come to appreciate just what the Refuge System does. So do the 44-thousand volunteers, who donated more than a million-and-a-half hours in 2003 to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The overwhelming majority of that time went to refuges – and we are grateful.

As the public increasingly takes the time to discover that their local refuge is part of something bigger – part of the National Wildlife Refuge System – they will expect the same quality of service and the same understanding of our management actions.

How will they discover the Refuge System? It could be by consistent application of refuge laws, regulations and visitor experience that appears to be provided by the same organization. Image is important in this visually oriented society. We must reinforce our image and our message.

Our blue goose symbol may never become as well known as the Pillsbury doughboy or the Nike "swoosh." But we can try.

With the blue goose flying in front of wildlife refuges, on boundary signs, brochures and Web pages, the public will associate it with solid conservation, quality wildlife-dependent recreation, and a chance for families to observe wildlife and connect with nature.

They will look for the blue goose when they want a quality wildlife-dependent experience – and we will cultivate a new generation of conservationists.

Ultimately, the public will grow to appreciate the world's largest system of lands managed for fish, wildlife, and people.

Finally, we face the most pressing question: How do we become loved – without being loved to death? How can we serve the public and conserve the wildlife?

We start by understanding what people really want to see and do on wildlife refuges.

As I mentioned earlier, the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation found that 82 million people participate in some kind of wildlife-related recreation.

More than 66 million people were wildlife watchers – the largest single category of participants. About 34 million people fished and 13 million people hunted. The demands on the Refuge System are destined to grow. Demographers estimate that in 2050, the U.S. will have about 390 million people – around 100 million more than today. Refuges will become oases of green in a sea of sprawl.

As people stream out of crowded cities, they will turn to refuges to find the wildlife that makes their lives meaningful.

Over the next 15 years, small construction projects will allow visitors to view wildlife in their natural habitat. Observation platforms, viewing equipment, nature trails, interpretive panels and tour routes will become the norm.

All of that will add more value not just to the Refuge System, but to our standing in the communities where we are neighbors.

We already know that we bring value to communities. Our 2002 Banking on Nature study showed that the Refuge System fueled more than 816 million dollars in economic output. 19-thousand jobs were created. That's nearly double the figure in 1995, when the study was last conducted.

What do all these numbers mean? That the Refuge System is vitally important to people. Nearly 90 percent of Americans believe that outdoor recreation is good for the environment because it gives people a good reason to care about natural resources.

People love what they find at refuges. We have a legal and almost moral obligation to provide wildlife-dependent recreation, even as we conserve the biodiversity within the Refuge System.

For a century, we have succeeded in staving off the loss of irreplaceable ecosystems squeezed by a growing country. That is our mission.

Throughout our history, the Refuge System has had notable success in species protection. Attwater prairie chickens still boom in Texas because a refuge by that name exists. Mississippi sandhill cranes still trumpet and dance in the state. The list goes on.

Because many refuges are remnants of fragmented habitats, they are managed intensively to protect the wildlife whose health is our primary concern. So, water levels are manipulated. Prescribed fires are used to control invasive species. And prescriptive grazing is applied – all to mimic natural ecosystem functions.

Even as more people visit refuges, none of that will change. We are dedicated to administering a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and restoration of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats – all for the benefit of present and future generations.

We will never waiver from that.

Meanwhile, as the Refuge System grows, we will contribute to the conservation of ecosystems and complement the work of states and other federal agencies.

Our Land Acquisition Priority System – used for more than a decade – offers a nationwide, biologically based way to prioritize lands and waters for acquisition.

We are developing comprehensive conservation plans for each refuge. Not only will they be as consistent as possible with state conservation plans. But they are one of our best means to talk directly with the people we serve.

We continue to monitor the status and trends of fish, wildlife, and plants in each refuge.

One tenet guides us: our love for that delicate, ever-evasive balance of life that was supremely crafted - but must be humanly conserved.

Whether we work on refuges – or in that faceless place called headquarters – we are dedicated to conserving for all time the species – wild and free, known and sometimes only fleetingly observed – that define us as individuals, as professionals, as dreamers, as links as to generations yet unborn.

What we decide here will set the pace and path of the Refuge System for the near future

But what we do here will determine far more. It may well guarantee that, in 100 years or more, species will thrive, lands will always be green, a child will smile in wonder at something as simple as a tadpole.

What we do here will echo through time.

I thank you for your time and your dedication. I look forward to working with you here and in the future.


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