By Martha Nudel

Seeing is understanding. That’s the philosophy behind — and outcome of — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-organized trips for members of CARE (Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement). Over the past decade, nine trips have taken CARE to various regions, including last October to five New England refuges.

“Over the years, a variety of resource challenges have been presented,” says Susan Recce, director of conservation, wildlife and natural resources for the National Rifle Association, one of 23 CARE member organizations. “In terms of refuge management, we really have seen an amazing variety of refuges. Even refuges in close proximity to one another can have very different challenges.” Ultimately, Recce says, the trips have given CARE a “better perspective” not only about management challenges, but also funding challenges.

CARE’s steadfast aim is championing the Refuge System’s budget needs on Capitol Hill.

The October trip took eight CARE representatives to:

  • Umbagog Refuge, NH, which is doing active forest management using an innovative approach for wildlife,
  • Silvio O. Conte Refuge, which spans the Connecticut River watershed across four states,
  • Great Bay Refuge, NH, a former Air Force base whose habitat now benefits New England cottontail,
  • Rachel Carson Refuge, ME, coastal habitat where climate change is becoming obvious, and
  • Parker River Refuge, MA, where CARE representatives met with Friends and partners.

Previous trips have been to Louisiana and Mississippi, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, New Mexico and Arizona, Florida, and Alaska. The Service organizes the itinerary and provides ground transportation. CARE members pay for airfare, hotel and meals.

“This last trip highlighted the fascinating difference between what can be done when a refuge has staff as compared to refuges that don’t have staff,” says Caroline Brouwer, director of government affairs for the National Wildlife Refuge Association, which chairs CARE. “But every trip has enabled CARE members to have a better idea of how wildlife refuges are run, how they work on the ground. It enables us to talk more intelligently on the Hill.”

Cam Witten, government relations and budget specialist with The Wilderness Society, went on the October trip and two earlier ones. And he’s always learning.

“I hadn’t visited any of the refuges that were part of the trip this time,” says Witten. “I am always impressed with how mission-focused staff are. In talking to us, they always come back to habitat objectives, to species conservation objectives.”

Witten and others pointed to timber management at Umbagog Refuge as an example of the biological expertise on wildlife refuges: “Umbagog staff showed us the process of decision-making from the highest level down to the most granular decisions made. They walked us through the whole process, and clearly they had a justified process as they moved from one forest section, indicating habitat concerns and the timber sale goals for each area. They considered the species at every stop. The discussions clearly showed methodical thinking, and years and year of planning.”

The CARE trip — for Witten and others — made refuge stories come alive. “Once you get below the symbolic megafauna, communications is more difficult,” Witten says. “But CARE and the Refuge System are getting better at telling the stories that resonate with folks on the Hill, stories about what can be accomplished if certain funding levels are reached.”

Another benefit: relationship building. “We’re practically spending 24/7 together as a group. There is a lot of turnover in CARE representatives, so this is a chance to get to know one another,” says Recce. “The trips really make a big difference. It’s the first time I met Shaun Sanchez [deputy chief of the Refuge System], and it was a great opportunity to get to know him and other Refuge System staff.”