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Celebrating a Century of Conservation
Centennial sectionEducationGeneral Interest sectionHabitats and Conservation sectionPolicy Makers section

Time Capsule Tour — A Trip Through Our Past:
Conserving Our Wildlife, Habitat and History

— Speech by Mark Madison, March 13, 2003

Format: 15 minute tour with objects. Approximately 56 objects in display with nine objects highlighted. Backdrop display with refuge centennial history.

Welcome: Welcome to the National Wildlife Refuge System time capsule. We have collected objects from many of our 540 National Wildlife Refuges that highlight the work we do everyday in the field in some of the world's best wildlife habitat. The national wildlife refuge system was established a century ago a few miles from here at Pelican Island. President Theodore Roosevelt sought to protect nesting pelicans from plume traders and market hunters and in the process helped invent the refuge system and American wildlife conservation. From this five acre island the system has expanded to 95 million acres across the continent and into the oceans. The objects we have collected here tell the story of the refuge system's history, expansion, and the daily work of thousands of dedicated refuge employees, volunteers and partners. It also tells the story of American wildlife conservation.

The Time Capsule: Unlike most time capsules you are familiar with you will notice right away this one was not buried. Many individual refuges are burying time capsules this week as they celebrate a century of refuges. However, we decided to make the national collection of refuge objects more of a display — we didn't want to bury this particular treasure. So these objects have been sent from around the continent to Pelican Island, the birthplace of our refuge system. This is the premiere; you are the first visitors to see this unique collection. The time capsule will travel around the country for our centennial year. Eventually, like many nesting birds in the area, the time capsule will migrate back to Pelican Island to be on display for the next century of conservation.

The Artifacts: There are many ways to tell the history of the refuge system, but these artifacts are a particularly good way to visualize our history. So let's start our journey by looking at some of the more interesting artifacts from our refuge system.

Pelican Island Survey: Our oldest artifact is a 1902 copy of the Pelican Island survey, actually a year older than the refuge system. In 1902 Pelican Island was besieged by plume hunters, market hunters, and occasional vandals who were killing the birds and destroying their nests and eggs. At the time this survey was conducted, much of Florida was being homesteaded and settled. This small 5 acre island had some powerful friends in Paul Kroegel, a recent German immigrant and friend to the birds, and Teddy Roosevelt, a U.S. President and also a friend to birds. Having had the plight of the pelicans brought to his attention, Roosevelt set aside this small triangular-shaped island as the first national land conserved exclusively for wildlife. Since that spring day a century ago, more than 90 million acres have been added to that system, making it the largest land base in the world for wildlife conservation. Throughout this century of change, our refuge mission has remained the same: to conserve our fish, wildlife, and plant resources for the present and posterity.

WPA Bronze Plaque: The refuge system expanded and evolved in cycles, and the 1930s was a particularly strong period for refuge growth. In the midst of an economic depression and environmental dust bowls, many lands were put into conservation use to try to restore the soil and wildlife numbers. This bronze plaque from Lake Andes refuge in South Dakota is one of our artifacts from that era, representing the Works Progress Administration. The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps both provided important voluntary labor to maintain and expand our national wildlife refuge system in a difficult period. Hundreds of young men in WPA and CCC camps worked on refuges restoring habitat, building trails and visitor centers, and expanding the infrastructure necessary to protect our nation's wildlife. These hands on the land literally helped build the modern refuge system. In the 1930s and 1940s a large number of refuges in the Great Plains were established to control soil erosion, halt the dust storms, and restore endangered wildlife such as migratory birds. As part of this legacy, North Dakota has the largest number of refuges of any state in the nation.

Polar Bear Swag and Walrus Tusk: This polar bear swag from Selawik refuge in Alaska is representative of the most recent expansion of the refuge system. In 1980 the Alaska Lands Act added 53 million acres to the national wildlife refuge system, more than doubling the lands set aside for wildlife conservation. This meant a huge expansion of habitat for threatened species such as Kodiak bears, migratory birds, salmon, and polar bears. Selawik, near the Arctic Circle, provides prime habitat for polar bears and migratory birds. This walrus tusk comes from the opposite end of our largest state, from Togiak refuge in Southeastern Alaska, an important habitat for the population of Pacific walruses. Alaska is unique in many ways, representing a large land base for wildlife habitat and unparalleled resources for both humans and wildlife combined. As befits the nation's largest state, our two largest refuges are now in Alaska. Each of these refuges encompasses more than 19 million acres of land and provides prime habitat for arctic species.

Having described briefly the expansion of the national wildlife refuge system, I would now like to talk a bit about the biological and geographical diversity of this system of lands.

Gas Mask and Razor Coral: The geographic diversity of the refuges is illustrated as we move from arctic species, like walruses and polar bears, to the Johnson Atoll, home to coral, sea birds, and marine life halfway between Hawaii and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific ocean. The complex history of this refuge is evident from this odd combination of objects: a gas mask and a piece of razor coral. Johnston Atoll was set aside as a bird reservation in 1926, but for many years the atoll was shared by the U.S. Navy. It was the site of nuclear testing in the 1960s, and in the 1990s it was a major site for the destruction of chemical and nerve weapons as the U.S. sought to eliminate these weapons globally. In the 1990s, with disposal of these dangerous weapons ongoing, all visitors had to carry gas masks like this. Today the island is being returned to the wildlife that originally inhabited it. There are still contaminated areas, but slowly natural processes are reclaiming this set of islands. Similar efforts have occurred in places like Denver, where the Rocky Mountain Arsenal has been converted from a chemical dumping ground to an active wildlife refuge. These success stories give us hope that wildlife habitat can be continuously discovered and re-created — even in the most unlikely of places.

Whooping Crane Head and California Condor transmitter: I would also like to highlight a relatively recent addition to our refuge mission: returning species to wild places from which they had been eliminated. More than fifty wildlife refuges have been acquired for the benefit of threatened and endangered species. We have two objects here related to our attempts to restore endangered birds on our refuge lands. The Necedah refuge in Wisconsin began pioneering crane research in the 1980s using costumed handlers to rear and teach whooping crane chicks how to migrate and survive in the wild. Hopper Mountain refuge in California used similar techniques to try to restore North America's largest bird, the California condor. This radio transmitter was used to track the condors' progress as they slowly began to reclaim their native habitat after years of being bred and raised in zoos and breeding facilities. Both objects remind us of how difficult it is to return species to habitats once they have been eliminated from the landscape. It is far easier to protect species while they are still on the land, a job made far easier thanks to the nation's 540 refuges across the continent.

Tule Elk Antlers: The largest object in our display is this magnificent set of tule elk antlers from a dominant bull of the herd at San Luis NWR, in California. Tule elk are a subspecies of elk native to California. Originally common in that state, by the end of the 1800s the total California elk population declined to fewer than one hundred animals and conservationists were concerned they might all go extinct. The elk were protected in the 20th C. and their numbers ebbed and flowed. Beginning in 1974, 29 elk were reintroduced into the San Luis NWR from zoos. By 2002 a total of 176 elk had been relocated elsewhere around the state. There are now approximately 3500 tule elk in 23 herds across the state. It is a great success story with which to end the tour. The tule elk represents the constituency for our wildlife refuges — wildlife and those humans who appreciate them. Many of our refuges are increasingly home to endangered and threatened species like the elk and they function as centers of restoration and recovery. The refuge system and its many supporters are part of the reason we still have pelicans on Pelican Island, migratory waterfowl on the Great Plains, and tule elk in California. The elk that actually shed these particular antlers will be long gone by the time this time capsule is revisited a hundred years from now. But because of America's commitment to a national wildlife refuge system, his descendants will be bugling an autumn challenge in 2103 at San Luis NWR.

Conclusion: This quick tour can only give a taste of the diversity of the national wildlife refuge system. It is but a small sample from the fish, wildlife, and plants our refuge system protects. To get the full effect of this marvelous resource, we encourage you to visit, hunt, fish or volunteer at a refuge. You, too, can become a part of this great land-based experiment to ensure wildlife for future generations. So thanks for participating in the tour and thank you (on behalf of the Service and the critters) for your support. We look forward to celebrating the next century of conservation with all of you on your local national wildlife refuge.

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