National Wildlife Refuge System

Friends Academy:
Energy for New Adventures

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 “Incredible facility, excellent facilitators, wonderful new friends!” said Debbie Beer of Friends of Heinz Refuge, PA, only two days into this year’s Friends Academy at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV.  Participants in previous Academies – this year is the sixth – have made dramatic progress.

Friends of Anahuac Meets REI
Matt Jackson, an alumnus from last year’s Friends Academy and president of Friends of Anahuac Refuge, TX, said in the past year his Friends group has seen a 20 percent increase in memberships and nearly a third more active volunteers. He credits significant new outreach in the community, including meeting with several local Chambers of Commerce, to build awareness of the refuge.

(The Friends of Anahuac Web site includes many short videos, including this one about the new visitor center.)

Since 2011 when Hurricane Ike destroyed refuge offices, the Friends group has operated a nature store in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service building in the town of Anahuac as well as one at the refuge’s new visitor center. Customers often buy a membership on the spot to earn a discount on purchases.   There have been several “Volunteer for a Day” event, which get people in the community involved without a long term commitment – but with lunch provided by the Friends.

On August 15, the Friends of Anahuac extended its outreach to Houston, an hour, with an evening program at REI Houston.  Jackson contacted REI’s outreach coordinator who offered time at the store and promotional space on the REI Web site. About 30 people came to hear short presentations by Jackson, refuge ranger Tami Schutter and David Plunkett from the Friends of Brazoria Refuges (Texas Mid-Coast Refuge Complex south of Houston).

Jackson considers the event a success:

  • We discussed non-urban refuges with mostly urban residents for close to an hour.
  • We gained a new outreach partner in the city.
  • We networked with a neighboring Friends group.
  • We were able to use a new display geared for urban outreach.
  • It gave us leverage for fundraising in the community surrounding Anahuac Refuge.

How did all this result from Friends Academy?  “I had more confidence,” said Jackson. “The network of other Friends was motivating and I now know we have so much support at the national level.”


Jane Connors, board member of the Friends of Lower Suwanee and Cedar Keys Refuges, joined a six-mile adventure hike to help to make the refuge and Friends better known to residents of Dixie County, on the north side of Lower Suwanee Refuge.
Credit: Peg Hall

Member-Driven Friends
Peg Hall with Friends of the Lower Suwanee and Cedar Keys Refuges, FL, went home from Friends Academy 2011 and personally sought out inactive members.  “When we succeeded in involving them, it brought the same sense of energizing to the board that I had felt when I met my Academy cohort.”

The Friends also worked to become member-driven rather than board-driven. A board committee and the refuge manager outlined 14 possible initiatives that one Friend could champion and others could join.  So far, five initiatives have champions and teams:

  • An art team will bring artists to refuge areas they would never see from public roads; a spring art show is planned for a local gallery;
  • An education team is organizing an overnight class for 20 adults on a refuge island;
  • A refuge restoration team won a grant to help control invasive plants;
  • A science team is scheduling a bio-blitz on one of the refuge islands;
  • A trail team has already laid out a new hiking trail and published a guide.

“I didn’t leave the Academy with this idea,” said Hall, “but it evolved out of my effort to replicate the energy I got from my cohort group.”


This year's Friends Academy participants gathered at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia for a week of learning and networking in early August.
Credit: NCTC

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Last updated: August 23, 2013