photo of a double rainbow on the Florida coast
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge FloridaGeorge Gentry/USFWS volunteer

Refuge Update recently asked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees who seemed particularly engaged in the Conserving the Future process to tell us, in 200 words or less, what they think is the most important thing that the National Wildlife Refuge System should do in coming decades to enhance wildlife conservation and make the System more relevant to conservation in America. Here are their abridged responses.

Kipp Morrill

Assistant fire management officer, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, CA

The Refuge System is an amazing culture of can–do people, a unique breed of “conservation martyrs.” Yet, one of the biggest challenges we face is change itself. It’s scary. It’s uncomfortable. But we need to ensure that “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is purged from our collective psyche. Gone are the days when we could rely on tried–and–true techniques, procedures and attitudes that seemingly sustained conservation. We need to nurture and reward outsidethe– box thinking. “It might not work” needs to be replaced with “Let’s give it a try.”

Kristin Reakoff

Interpretive park ranger, Kanuti Refuge, AK

Conservation matters for many reasons, but reasons don’t always speak to the heart. Show people your passion and share your story instead. If you’ve stood in the desert in awe of the noonday heat, tell them that. If you’ve run with the wind at the ocean’s edge and known the exhilaration of the tide, tell them that. If you’ve admired the tenacity of a flower growing between sidewalk slabs and felt uplifted, tell them that. By all means, tell them how it is with you. Share with them what truly inspires you to work for conservation, and give them time to let your passion stir their souls. If they are ready, you will have successfully passed the torch and awakened in them a yearning to run the next leg of the conservation journey.

Marilyn Kitchell

Wildlife biologist, Wallkill River, Shawangunk Grasslands and Cherry Valley Refuges, NJ, NY and PA

If we are to increase our relevance to conservation, we must serve the people where they are—whether on a refuge or not. Our public is everywhere, and most Americans don’t know about us. Serving them well means connecting with new audiences while remaining true to the principle of “wildlife first.” This will require soul–searching, stretching our comfort zone and doing things we didn’t get in this business to do. We’ll need to use mainstream and social media, be present in urban areas, reach out to non–traditional audiences and assume outreach responsibilities because that is our job. We can improve our conservation delivery, but we can’t do it just for ourselves or by ourselves—we need the public we serve.

Kofi Fynn–Aikins

Manager, Lower Great Lakes and Central Rivers Complex, NY

To be relevant in the 21st century, the Refuge System must pay close attention to America’s changing demographics. The System must be proactive in recruiting a talented and diverse workforce that reflects those demographics. This means the System must embrace differences in education, language, geographical location, socioeconomic status, generation, marital status, gender, etc. It also means creating an inclusive workforce that reflects the face of a changing America. Putting into place such a workforce will take serious commitment from System leaders.

photo of an adult and a child on a boulder observing a flowing stream though the woods
Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge VermontRyan Hagerty/USFWS

Brian Salem

Refuge operation specialist/law enforcement officer, Lostwood Refuge, ND

The Refuge System must attempt to manage not only refuge lands but the entire landscape they fall within. The only way to accomplish this enormous task is to properly utilize and inform partners, the community, Friends groups and others. Social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the Web site used to help craft the Conserving the Future vision document, have proved to be effective and should be used to accomplish landscape–level conservation. Social media provide a mechanism to keep all stakeholders involved; accept input from various sources; inform landowners and the public; share successful accomplishments; share the benefits of refuges; and compare management techniques.

Heather Abbey

Wildlife biologist, Ecological Services Office, Ventura, CA

We need to be thinking far into the future at a landscape scale. We cannot move forward without the backing of the American public and our partners, so we must work with them at every opportunity. I envision a Refuge System that is administered across jurisdictions and planned for across all relevant spatial scales—and where actions are based on a commitment to scientific excellence and transparency, sustaining the viability of our natural systems comes first and fostering people’s connection to these special places is a priority.

Noah Kahn

Performance manager, National Wildlife Refuge System, Arlington, VA

I envision a Refuge System with a few clear priorities designed to improve the biological integrity and environmental health of each refuge and wetland district—a System in which we evaluate each refuge’s condition using an “integrity index” that focuses our work and supports budget requests. A cooperative approach with partners is essential to improving existing refuges and to beginning new projects in nationally significant ecosystems. My vision emphasizes setting Systemwide goals that require collaboration in order to be met. We’ll know we’ve aimed high enough if our fundamental goals cannot be achieved without collaborative partnerships. And if a refuge can achieve its goals without partners, then we’ve probably aimed too low.

Paul Charland

Wildland–urban interface coordinator, Leopold Wetland Management District, WI

The word “legacy” reminds me of the Duck Stamp, the Prairie Pothole Region and Ira Gabrielson. Theodore Roosevelt gave us refuges, but the Duck Stamp gave us a System. Those were days of a clear mission. We succeeded because we had a singular purpose. To carry that legacy forward, we need to ensure our goal is as clear today as it was then. Who we are will always change, as will our constituency, but our singular mission must always be to conserve fish, wildlife and their habitat. We will not and cannot be everything to everyone. We need to be true to wildlife. If we’re successful at that, we’ll be relevant.

photo of a Monarch Butterfly on a purple-flowered plant
Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge
New Hampshire
Greg Thompson/USFWS

Kathryn Owens

Deputy refuge manager, Back Bay Refuge, VA

The opportunity now before us is to enhance how we deliver conservation. We must focus our energy and resources on the greatest ecological needs and, sometimes painfully, give up the less critical, and perhaps traditional, priorities. We must demand the highest scientific excellence from ourselves and our partners—sharing data and resources to build our collective capacity and impact the broadest landscapes. Most important, we must consistently deliver this message to the people around us who don’t have the benefit and privilege of seeing what we see.

Holly Gaboriault

Deputy refuge supervisor, Florida, Mississippi and South Alabama refuges

A computer crash recently reminded me of how dependent I have become on electronics. At some point in my career, I went from leading Youth Conservation Corps crews and conducting wildlife surveys to checking e–mail on my BlackBerry. I have learned to accept that, for many of us, electronics are now as essential for our jobs as binoculars once were. So, I challenge all of us to embrace change when it is needed, to question it when it is not, and to reconnect with that passion we had for our jobs before BlackBerrys. My vision for the Refuge System is one in which each of us finds that perfect balance between getting our boots muddy for the resource and utilizing the new ways of doing business that emerge.