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

Pelican Island Speech for Time Capsule Event

— Speech by Assistant Secretary Craig Manson,
delivered by Deputy Assistant Secretary David P Smith,
March 13, 2003

It is a pleasure to be here with you on the eve of the Centennial of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Many of you have come from around the nation, on a pilgrimage if you will, to the place where the refuge system got its start. So today I'd like to tell you the story of how this one little dot on the map – Pelican Island in Indian River County – changed the world a century ago.

The story of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge began in the closing years of the 19th century. It is a story with heroes and one with a moral: that one human being can, with dedication, drive and a fearless conviction, change the way of the world.

The story opens in an age when plumed hats, the showier the better, were considered to be the height of fashion. As feathers became more and more coveted by the fashion industry, the trend attracted the attention of the poachers. Suddenly feathers were worth more than gold. Poachers began to target pelicans, egrets, spoonbills and other water birds. They frequently used cannon-sized punt-guns, and many-barreled shotgun batteries capable of decimating a whole flock as it rested on the water. This was not sport. It was carried out in earnest by people who saw it as a business.

The hero of our story is Paul Kroegel, a German immigrant who arrived in Sebastian, Florida in 1881. He made his home on the west bank of the Indian River, overlooking a small island called Pelican Island. Paul could see the toll market hunting was taking on the island's flocks, and he wanted to protect the birds.

For years, Paul Kroegel led a one man campaign to protect the birds on Pelican Island. He also spearheaded an effort to inform the rest of America about the plight of Florida's birds. One of the men Kroegel invited to Pelican Island was Frank Chapman, curator of the American Museum of Natural History. Chapman was horrified to learn of the threat to the little island, which he knew to be the last remaining brown pelican rookery on the east coast of Florida.

Fortunately, Chapman had access to the halls of power. He caught the ear of President Theodore Roosevelt. In response, the famous Rough Rider turned to his aides with a simple question.

"Is there anything," T.R. asked, "that prevents me from designating Pelican Island a federal bird sanctuary?"

When the reply was a cautious "no," Roosevelt's answer was succinct:

"Very well then," he grinned, "I so declare it!" And thus the National Wildlife Refuge System was born.

Paul Kroegel went on to become the first national wildlife refuge manager, paid the princely sum of $1 a month by the Audubon Society, since there were no federal appropriations to support the presidentially-created refuge. Paul Kroegel, one man alone, with a badge, a gun, a boat, and an American flag, stood watch over Pelican Island until 1926.

And that is why we are here today – to reflect on the refuge system's past and celebrate the legacy of Paul Kroegel and Theodore Roosevelt. It is a legacy as great as the hearts and courage of the men who inspired it. Today, thanks to their bold actions, there are 540 National Wildlife Refuges, touching every state in this great country. The movement that men like Roosevelt and Kroegel began has grown to encompass nearly 100 million acres of America's most precious places. It is a legacy that heroic men and women – many of them with us in the audience today – have dedicated their lives and careers to maintain.

And so tomorrow our second century begins. Thank you for being here today, and I look forward to seeing you all tomorrow in Sebastian.

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