National Wildlife Refuge System
From the Chief

"Now or Never"

photo of Greg Siekaniec
Greg Siekaniec

Before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20, 2010, 10–year–old Olivia Bouler of Islip, NY, was just another 5th grader. Then she read about the disaster, “I just sat at the table and sobbed,” she reported.

And she took action, first by drawing two birds — a sandwich tern and a brown pelican — for the National Audubon Society — and eventually drawing 500 birds that fetched $200,000 in donations for environmental projects dealing with the oil spill. Today, she is a media darling — having been interviewed by the likes of retired CNN talk show host Larry King, and her book, Olivia’s Birds Saving the Gulf, has just been published (

How do we ignite that passion — let’s call it Aldo Leopold’s land ethic — in a million, or 10 million, 5th graders?

We looked at that question in Chapter 4 — the “Human–Nature” chapter — in the draft vision, now being presented to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Directorate as we work toward ratification of a guiding vision for the Refuge System during the July Conserving the Future conference in Madison, WI. There is no simple answer.

Certainly children can learn about nature from being on a national wildlife refuge. But many young people don’t live anywhere near a wildlife refuge, but rather in cities where chances are slim to hunt, fish or just turn over a rock to see what’s underneath. How do they experience and learn to appreciate nature when the roar of traffic obliterates the song of a bird?

Technology may be one answer — and one that some wildlife refuges have used successfully. Other answers? We have to enlist our allies — Refuge Friends, schools, communities, faith–based organizations — to reach the next generation of conservationists.

One participant on the Conserving the Future Web site ( recalled the youngster who came to a refuge for her fourth trip with her elementary class and asked, “Can we just go exploring today?”

A desire to explore is just what we want to encourage, but how we do that is a question still being explored. After all, we want to create opportunities for millions of youngsters who, like Olivia Bouler, are driven to help the environment. “We are houseguests on this earth, and we’re very messy,” said Olivia. “It’s time to clean up. Now or never.”

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Friends Forward Spring 2011

Last updated: May 3, 2011