Last spring Refuge Update asked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees around the country about the most important thing they have done to connect everyday people to the land. The result was a series of vignettes in the May/June 2011 issue. However, one response was too long to include and too good to ignore. It came from Scott Kahan, project leader at Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District in Minnesota and a 21–year veteran of the Refuge System who has since been named Northeast Region refuge chief. Here it is.

By Scott Kahan

When I consider the question of the most important thing I have done on a refuge to connect people to the land, I am reminded that my views on this subject have changed.

I spent the first half of my career not really understanding the importance of connecting people with the land. My focus was on habitat, on critters. In some sense, I knew people were an important part of the equation, but I can’t say that I truly understood how important the “people side” of things is to our mission.

I began my career in the Northeast Region working often with our outdoor recreation planner. Part of my job was to give interpretive walks. I remember leading groups of birders at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, RI, to watch woodcocks perform their spring courtship ritual. People would ooh–and–aah as the males flew high into the sky, circling as they went, and then falling like leaves adrift in the wind and coming to rest gracefully on the ground with a “peent.” I moved to Tewaukon Refuge, ND, where I was cajoled into giving a puppet show about wetlands. I remember everyone was laughing by the end of our “performance,” but I really couldn’t tell you if I made an impact.

It’s interesting that one of the few times I feel that I really did connect someone to the land occurred by happenstance, not anything I “did.”

A few years ago at Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District, we were hosting Prairie Fun Day on a waterfowl production area where we had recently removed many planted trees from the prairie. Seeing a crowd at the event, a neighbor came over to complain about our decision to take down the trees. He asked me why we had done it. I told him it was to benefit the prairie and the critters that depend on open prairie grasslands.

We were discussing the importance of prairie when he noticed a blue wildflower tucked beneath a big stem. He asked me what it was. I told him it was a bottle gentian. He said, “That’s a beautiful flower. I need to go get my family and show them this.”

He returned with three relatives. He showed them the gentian, and the family spent the next half–hour “discovering” this prairie. Before they left, the man told me, “You know, I’ve lived here all my life, and when you guys took those trees down I was mad. I spent the last few years driving past here, and I was mad every time I looked at what you had done. I had no idea that all this [he gestured at the prairie plants] was here.”

When I recall that day, I realize the prairie told the story in a more beautiful and understated way than any of my words could have.

When the land and critters tell a story, it’s one that people instinctively can’t resist. Whether listening to the whistling wings of blue–winged teal in the dark before the dawn or enjoying the sight of thousands of monarch butterflies during their fall migration, people hold these experiences close as precious memories. We, Service folks, provide places where it’s possible to make such connections.