From its start in 1903, the National Wildlife Refuge System has owed its very existence to
concerned citizens eager to protect America's natural resources.

Paul Kroegel
Citizen activist and first refuge manager Paul Kroegel
Credit: George Nelson/USFWS

The country's first refuge manager, Paul Kroegel, began as a citizen activist saving pelicans from armed tourists. Kroegel regularly visited a fishing lodge not far from Pelican Island. It was a frequent haven for Washington visitors and Kroegel's daughter, J.T. Thompson, recalls that her father would "use all the influence he possibly could to get the pelicans some help from Washington . . . He wanted Pelican Island to be a federal reservation so he would have the power to keep people off the island." In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt named Paul Kroegel manager of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the nation's first. Learn more about the history of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Early Friends Groups

In 1937, the Department of the Interior Appropriations Act recognized the legal status of cooperating associations but it wasn't until the 1980s that such associations began to support National Wildlife Refuges. Cooperating associations were authorized by Congress to support the education, interpretation and research activities of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society formed in 1982 in Florida followed by the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Society in 1987.

In 1994, the Service and "Ding" Darling Wildlife Society hosted the first training sessions for cooperating associations in Tampa, Florida. The following year, President Bill Clinton signed an Executive Order on the "Management and General Public Use of the National Wildlife Refuge System." During a workshop sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – "From Executive Order to Collective Action" – participants listed Friends organizations as the top priority for strengthening the Refuge System.

The Service joined the National Wildlife Refuge Association, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Audubon Society in a partnership called the Friends Initiative to jump start the creation of more refuge support organizations. The National Audubon Society began its Audubon Refuge Keepers (ARK) program to stimulate citizen action on refuges through local Audubon chapters.

Ding Darling Logo
"Ding" Darling Wildlife Society started in 1982 by offering interpretive and environmental education opportunities to visitors. After eight years of generating income from book sales, donations and membership dues, the Society had raised enough money to enclose a visitor center deck to make a sales area. Later, the Society raised $3 million for an entirely new visitor center.

Continued Growth

By 1997 –

  • There were 114 Friends groups
  • Taking Flight: An Introduction to Building Refuge Friends Organizations was
  • The Refuge Friends Group Mentoring Program began with 11 refuges participating during the first year
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the National Conservation Training Center jointly sponsored the first workshop for refuge managers and park superintendents – Developing and Working with Friends Groups
  • The Service began funding the National Wildlife Refuge Friends Group Grant Program,
    administered and managed by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation

In 2008, there are more than 200 nonprofit Refuge Friends organizations with more than 50,000 members nationwide working on behalf of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Most Friends organizations are connected to a single refuge. Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges support all 16 refuges in Alaska and Friends of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge has at least one member from every state in the country.

Federal Encouragement

The Volunteer-Partnership Enhancement Act of 1998 (242 KB PDF) further strengthened refuge partnerships by streamlining the requirements for establishing community partner organizations. The Act enabled partner organizations to provide financial and technical support and serve as liaisons between a refuge and a community.

The first national conference specifically for members of Friends groups was held in 2002, hosted by the National Wildlife Refuge System and the National Wildlife Refuge Association. The event was a marked success. In 2008, nearly 300 refuge Friends joined 150 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff for the 5th National Friends Conference, the largest ever.

Piping plover
Friends of Parker River National Wildlife Refuge started in 1992 when the community was embroiled in a piping plover controversy. With fewer than 50 members, the Friends helped to resolve the controversy.

The piping plover was a protected species and the Friends gained support from both the community and federal legislators. With only a handful of dedicated volunteers, this group sponsored a community-wide piping plover festival, which has since become an annual event.

Friends of Parker River Refuge in Massachusetts sponsor an annual piping plover festival.
Credit: USFWS