photo of a poster
This strategic illustration captures the first morning’s general session. It was done by an artist with Alchemy (www.link2alchemy—com), a company whose tag line is "The Art of Transforming Business."

To the left of the verdant stage at the Conserving the Future conference in Exhibit Hall A at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, next to one of the giant Twitter-feed monitors, Alece Birnbach and Jessica Townsend Teague used pastel, pencils and markers to translate the events, words and concepts of the gathering into art.

Of the 1,100 or so people in attendance, they were among the few who were not intimately familiar with the National Wildlife Refuge System beforehand. And, in addition to drawing a dynamic visual record of the conference, they came away with personal impressions of the Refuge System and its mission.

"My biggest takeaway from the conference was how passionate the Refuge System employees are about their work," said Birnbach, who with Teague is an affiliate of Alchemy, a Denver-based strategic illustration company. "Both young and older employees were all excited to talk about their jobs and genuinely love what they do. Outside of the arts, this is the first time I’ve come across a group of people who love and believe in their life’s work so much."

The most surprising aspect of the conference, Teague said, was that the Refuge System is creating an urban wildlife refuge initiative, "a great idea with enormous benefits—aesthetic, ecological and for all of us—as city dwelling becomes the norm."

"Having grown up in rural Colorado," said Birnbach, "I hadn’t given much thought to how many people grow up in urban areas now and what a need there is to reach that population with a conservation message."

Birnbach, Teague and their backstage colleague, Vince Palko, produced seven illustrations during the conference. The drawings can be seen at

Refuge Manager of the Future

It was standing room only in the Refuge Manager of the Future workshop, where five panelists shared heartfelt experiences.

The panel was moderated by Larry Williams, chief of the Refuge System’s Division of Budget, Performance and Workforce, who spoke of three elements of change. First, the demographics of refuge managers, currently 87 percent white and 75 percent male, are changing. Second, refuge management decisions are increasingly based on the latest scientific information. Finally, refuge managers are finding it more necessary to use technology.

Keenan Adams, deputy refuge manager at Pelican Island Refuge, FL, reminded the audience that the new generation of refuge managers may come from an urban background, and that current managers must be willing to reach out to diverse groups and find shared conservation goals.

Vicki Muller, a wildlife refuge specialist at Aransas Refuge, TX, spoke of the importance of finding a good mentor to discuss experiences and provide advice. "Look for those people throughout your career who model the traits and characteristics that you desire to have," she said.

Shaun Sanchez, a refuge manager at Desert Refuge Complex, NV, stressed the importance of developing future leaders. He suggested each manager should ask himself or herself: "What am I doing to ensure that there are refuge managers in the future?" He also encouraged managers to consider ways to help visitors see national wildlife refuges from the inside, not just from outside fences and boundary signs, and to empower the public to feel ownership of their local refuges.

photo of a mobile visitor center
The Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge mobile visitor center traveled 2,200 miles round trip to be in Madison, where hundreds of conference attendees checked it out. (Patrick Comins/Friends of Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge)

photo of a chalkboard
Amid the tweeting, Facebooking and live-streaming videos, the hallway chalkboard was a low-tech way to express oneself in Madison. (Nick Zukauskas/USFWS)

Don Hultman, a retired refuge manager, had even more fundamental advice. "Love the people who come to refuges and waterfowl production areas," he said, "and they will learn to love the resource."

To see summaries of some conference workshops and facilitated discussions go to and look under "Learn" and "Discuss."—Laura Bonneau

Low-Tech Messaging

Just steps away from the social media computer stations where conference participants could tweet, blog or share information on Facebook was a simple, low-tech, low-cost communication device that one could imagine in any visitor center in the Refuge System: a chalkboard on which to write pithy conservation thoughts and messages.

Vision process communications coordinator Michael Gale had seen a similar chalkboard at a previous event, liked it and, as "the idea of personal expression became important," suggested it for the conference. The free-standing, three-sided, hinged display was not chalkboard per se, but wood covered with chalkboard paint. It was built by Madison retiree John Belknap, a former economics professor who has volunteered at numerous refuges and national parks. Material costs were roughly $250.

It was a fun and effective diversion. The playful smile on the face of Friend Kathy Woodward—as she wrote "I (heart) Great Swamp NWR" on the chalkboard—would attest to that. As would the enthusiasm of the anonymous person who wrote: "It’s an honor to be a part of this vision process."

Have Refuge, Will Travel

One of the biggest non-human hits at the conference was the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge mobile visitor center, also known as the Watershed on Wheels (WOW) Express. The mobile visitor center is composed of two trailers. A 28-footer is painted with vibrant nature scenes and is home to a walkthrough exhibit that mimics the sights, sounds and even smells of the refuge. A 16-footer carries eight portable exhibits that include games and an interactive watershed table. The entire ensemble made the 2,200-mile, 50-hour roundtrip drive from its home base in New England.

Along the way, said refuge visitor service specialist David Sagan, the trailers "got a reaction at every toll booth we went through and every time we stopped for gas. People loved it and were asking all sorts of questions about it...I think it’s a great way for the refuge to spread its message."

Silvio O. Conte Refuge partnered with the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) to create the innovative traveling education trailer. It debuted in the fall of 2010 and is designed to inform the public about the Connecticut River watershed.

"I’ve been an environmental educator for six years, and over the past four months that I have been working with the WOW Express I have reached more people than in my entire career," said VINS staff member Chris Poulin as he gave tours of the trailer to conference attendees in Madison. The mobile visitor center has reached about 8,000 people in 35 communities in the Connecticut River Valley in that time, he said.

To see two videos about the mobile visitor center, go to the video archive at