photo of Ed Barrios and Leta Kay
Texans Ed Barrios of Friends of Brazoria Wildlife Refuges and Leta Kay of Friends of Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge take a break by the lake. (Neal McLain)

The Conserving the Future conference was a chance for refuge Friends to learn, share successes and discuss conservation issues. I attended as a Friend of Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. My board asked me to seek guidance on how to regenerate our group’s momentum, collaborate with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff to promote the mission of our refuge, and provide environmental education to the public.

The conference helped me, and other Friends, do just that.

Even though my refuge is half a continent from an ocean, marine scientist Dr. Sylvia Earle left a lasting impression. Even though my refuge is rural, I was fascinated by the urban refuge concept. Even though the mountainous landscape of the Blackfoot Challenge is nothing like the prairie terrain of my refuge, I appreciated Montana rancher Jim Stone’s insight.

Earle spoke powerfully about oceans’ vital role in the life systems that support us all. She noted that oceans produce more oxygen and eliminate more carbon than trees but are less protected. She told us that, while people often ask her if she is afraid of man-eating sharks, over time she has become more concerned about the pace of man eating sharks in a world where some people consider shark-fin soup a delicacy.

Discussions about possible new urban refuges helped me think creatively about connecting with people who can’t (or won’t) travel to Union Slough Refuge itself. It was clear that urban notions such as rooftop gardens, inner-city revitalizations, refuge children’s museums and river "blueways" could have application in rural areas, too.

Stone’s presentation, and the conference overall, reinforced the concept that Friends, supporters, landowners and refuge staff must work cooperatively for mutual benefits if beyond-the-refuge-boundaries projects are to be successful. Stone told us that landscape-level conservation requires landscape-level conversation.

I wasn’t alone among Friends. Keith Hackland of Friends of South Texas Refuges said he gained a greater awareness of the Service as "an evolving organization."

Pauline Chvilicek of Friends of Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland was in Madison "trying to find ways to involve people" of all ages. The citizen science workshop about how refuge volunteers can assist with observations, measurements and education was particularly useful. We learned that programs such as Project BudBurst, in which participants help track phenology, can be educational and reveal surprising data at the same time. For example, plants at Thoreau’s Walden Pond near Great Meadows Refuge in Massachusetts recently budded two weeks earlier than they did when the author lived there in the 1840s.

Furthermore, I learned how it’s possible to use technology such as EarthCaching and quick response (QR) codes to bring outdoor experiences to new audiences. My Friends group can utilize technologies that have been tested by others as our group moves ahead with events and outreach.

I enjoyed "Wild Legacy," the production in which five talented actors brought the sensation of the Alaska wilderness to us in simple, creative ways while telling the story of Olaus and Mardy Murie and their 1956 expedition that led to the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And seeing the documentary film "Green Fire," about Aldo Leopold, made the conference setting more meaningful.

The vision document was called a cornerstone, a capstone and a touchstone. By any name, it will guide volunteer and career conservationists alike as we work to protect, steward and share nature in our communities.

"It was an honor to be among so many people who are not only conservation-minded but also have the desire to shape a vision that gives consideration to human interaction with nature," said Laurie Peterka of Friends of the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, who with her colleague Ike Cabrera traveled more than 7,000 miles to be in Madison.

"We left full of hope and vision," Cabrera said.

Colleen Hovinga is charter member of Friends of Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa.