National Wildlife Refuge System

The Evolution of Conservation Leadership

By Lynn A. Greenwalt

photo of Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge
The author’s father enlisted University of Nevada football players to dig the post holes for the original boundary markers at Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge.
Credit: Kurt Kuznicki/Friends of Nevada Wilderness

The refuge manager job description has evolved dramatically over the past century. Current refuge managers assume responsibilities that early leaders of the National Wildlife Refuge System could not have imagined.

In the beginning, refuge managers played a largely custodial role, all were men, and many were newcomers to natural resources management. My father, Ernest Greenwalt, was a journalist before being hired 80 years ago to manage Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada.

Refuge managers then protected the land; kept track of events; took note of wildlife and habitat conditions; and, when possible, improved them. Their supervisors often were preoccupied and offered only passing guidance. The refuge manager was left pretty much to his own devices. When it came time to erect the boundary markers at Sheldon Refuge, for instance, my father enlisted University of Nevada football players to dig the post holes—and my mother fed them in return.

In the years before the Bureau of Fisheries and the Biological Survey merged to form the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1940, the Refuge System grew rapidly. The Great Depression and drought were gripping the nation, but land was cheap. More than 100 national wildlife refuges were established in the 1930s. Various federal programs provided jobs for millions who were out of work. Refuge managers made good use of Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration specialists.

As the new refuges were established, managers were charged with ensuring that suitable habitat was available for migratory birds, for resident species and for vanishing species. Refuge leaders identified projects to achieve these aims. Just as today, refuge managers needed to demonstrate innovation, common sense, vision and the ability to work with others.

Then, World War II intervened. The manpower and financial resources were diverted to the war effort, depleting refuge staff and reverting managers´ roles to custodial status. After the war, however, refuge managers found a renewed interest in outdoor recreation among a wealthier, more highly mobile public.

External Pressures

The refuge managers, who once concentrated on matters inside the refuge, now needed to pay attention to activities outside. They learned that managing wildlife is often the easy part; dealing with external pressures often is not.

This was when I became professionally involved with the Refuge System. I started as a youth/summer employee at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma and worked at three other refuges before moving to the Albuquerque regional office and eventually serving as Service Director.

Refuge managers and their leaders in the 1950s and ’60s focused on creating long–term plans to conserve the nation´s wildlife resources. Refuge leaders began to assess how refuges might complement one another and how to involve the public in the planning process. This led to the hiring of employees with special skills and to in–service training programs.

Women soon appeared in refuge leadership ranks. Refuge leaders were no longer crew chiefs, equipment operators, law enforcement officers and overseers of crop–sharing farmers. They became administrators, supervisors, mentors and refuge spokespeople—thorough professionals in complex jobs.

I am impressed by how refuge leaders have created and used opportunities; by the Service’s outreach; and, in recent years, by the volunteer programs and the Friends groups. I am most proud of the unremitting commitment to the mission, in good times and bad, and of the enthusiasm for refining the vision that guides the Service and the Refuge System—as has been evident in the ongoing Conserving the Future process.

Lynn Greenwalt was Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1973 to 1981.

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Refuge Update March/April 2011

Last updated: April 12, 2011