Friends Are Bettering Their Communities


Refuge Friends groups
Refuge Friends groups, like the Friends of Alaska Refuges, do it all, from helping pull weeds to assisting with environmental education programs. (Photo: USFWS )

Some 200 Friends organizations work on behalf of national wildlife refuges, raising funds, leading educational field trips, staffing information desks, sometimes pulling invasive plants or mowing. Thirty-three others work hand-in-hand with national fish hatcheries. The impact of their work goes way beyond the borders of federal lands and waters. Got a yen to help? Find a Friends group near you.

Friends of  Clarks River
In southwest Kentucky, Friends of Clarks River took quick action when they learned that Chestnut Creek was impaired. (Photo: Ray Stainfield/Friends president)

Clean Water is Basic. When the Friends of Clarks River learned in 2010 that Chestnut Creek -- which flows into the refuge’s namesake river -- was impaired, they took action. The Friends group obtained an Environmental Protection Agency grant to better identify the threats – and the solutions – for this small Kentucky community. Using a second EPA grant, the Friends hired a coordinator to build a local citizens action organization and help educate the Marshall County community. Now, the Marshall County Sanitation Department is repairing failing sanitary sewer facilities, and local homeowners can find help to replace their failing septic systems.

Darryn Witt
The Friends of Heinz Refuge is lending its strength to help revitalize southwest Philadelphia, and involving young people in the process. (Photo: USFWS)

From Vacant to Valued. With 40,000 vacant lots in the city of Philadelphia, conservation stewardship can seem more a dream than a reality. The Friends of Heinz Refuge in Pennsylvania is changing that, first by identifying at least six lots in southwest Philadelphia to revitalize. Using the community’s interest in native plants and vegetable gardens, the Friends worked with Philadelphia University architectural students to design the Cecil Street Garden. Friends and community members braved the cold to begin the work in January. Months earlier they had partnered with TreePhilly and Audubon Pennsylvania to give residents trees to enrich their own yards.

Baron Horiuchi
Environmental education takes many forms, sometimes incorporating music to celebrate nature. (Photo: Denise Warweg)

A Better Childhood. Through activities ranging from family workshops on flora and fauna to weekly summer explorations for kids, Tamarac Discovery Center is the hub for connecting its Minnesota community with natural resources and Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. The 2,000-square-foot building – built with the fundraising acumen of the Friends of Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge – is the hallmark of the group’s impact on the community. But their work doesn’t stop there. The group reaches the White Earth Reservation, adjacent to the refuge, through the Tamarac Whispers radio program. The Friends group also has helped keep aquatic invasive species out of local waters by teaching anglers proper boat cleaning techniques; created a Tamarac Journal that lets kids record their nature experiences and improve their writing skills; and planted a pollinator garden. And that’s just a partial list! “The Friends of Tamarac are building a legacy of conservation stewards through a dynamic environmental education program,” says Tamarac Refuge manager Neil Powers.

Lamar Gore
Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge puts on an annual birthday bash. (Photo: USFWS)

Resources for a Community.  Before there was a Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque, there was a Friends group to help the predominantly Hispanic Mountain View neighborhood, beset by chemical storage facilities and the city’s primary sewage facility. The New Mexico refuge, established in September 2012, was the first to have an environmental justice strategic plan that identifies how the refuge and the community — working together  —can minimize or eliminate major environmental issues. While the plan is being finalized, the Friends group is working with the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority, among others, to create habitat to ease flooding.  It is connecting neighbors with local gardening, farming and health organizations for the community’s enrichment. See birthday video:

Brian Lubinski
The Friends of Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges have worked to make sure that people of all physical abilities have the chance to experience Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Eric Horan)

Open to All. You can find great recreation and fabulous vistas on national wildlife refuges. But what if you’re not very agile? The Friends of the Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges used a $37,000 grant to buy a 15-passenger electric shuttle for Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina, giving people — regardless of physical abilities — the glorious sight of shorebirds, wading birds, raptors, deer and Ibis Pond. The Friends inaugurated the weekly, 75-minute tour in November 2016. Loaner bicycles, binoculars and guidebooks have been added to the fun and learning.

Ricardo Colon-Merced
A “Mountain Wilds to Wetland Wonders” curriculum gives fourth graders an appreciation for nature at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. (Photo: Judy Watson)

New Generation of Conservationists. Brigham City-area students are getting the first-rate environmental education they deserve. More than a decade after Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the Friends of Bear River built the James V. Hansen Wildlife Education Center in Utah, some 10,000 students a year fill classrooms and marshes with vitality and curiosity. The Friends organization pays for buses to transport students to the refuge and a full-time environmental education intern. A “Mountain Wilds to Wetland Wonders” curriculum was written for fourth graders, and the Friends encourage schools that don’t schedule regular field trips to borrow traveling educational trunks. With the help of Friends, “kids are becoming good ambassadors for the environment,” says refuge visitor services manager Kathi Stopher. Experience Bear River Refuge on video:

Lisa Hupp
A hiking and biking trails network has welcomed the City of Liberty into Trinity River Refuge.  (Photo: USFWS)

Connect A City. The City of Liberty in east Texas has moved closer to Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge — figuratively, that is. Thanks to the still-expanding “From Crosswalks to Boardwalks” hiking and biking trail complex, city residents can easily get to the unspoiled banks of the Trinity River in a state where public lands are few. The Friends of Trinity River Refuge were at the very heart of the trails’ development, raising money and giving their time, even helping to build the 500-foot boardwalk. People can get on the boardwalk from a trailhead at Liberty Municipal Park, heavily used by the town of 8,400. “Many people visit regularly to explore with their families or just to get some quiet time,” says refuge biologist Laurie Lomas Gonzales. “When I ask how far they are going, they simply say, ‘We’re going to see how far it takes us.’”

Reggie Forcine
Technology is being used in fight against litter at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge with help from its Friends organization. (Photo: Olivia Andrus)

Technology Cleanup. Litter attracts more litter — until a creative organization uses technology to make pickup fun. The San Francisco Bay Wildlife Society, a Friends group that supports Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge , used a grant to bring iPads and the Litterati app into the task of finding — and then collecting — trash in part of the 1600-square-mile Santa Clara watershed. The watershed provides millions with clean water. Since fall 2016, scores of youth from the San Jose Conservation Corps along with refuge interns and volunteers have been involved in the Watershed Watchers Pollution Prevention project, which will span some 24 separate cleanups, to be completed in July. It’s the technology that’s the draw. The app not only documents the highest concentrations and types of trash, but also helps improve use of volunteers.

LouAnn Speulda-Drews
Friends and volunteers enjoy their work on national wildlife refuges. (Photo: Eli J. Medellin/U.S. Navy)

You Can Help. The Friends stories are inspiring, giving just a taste of how communities across the country are benefitting. You can make a difference in your community by joining a Friends organization near you or volunteer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Compiled by , April 19, 2017