Andrew French fully appreciates the urban refuge concept of bringing the place to the people if the people can’t or won’t come to the place.

The place is Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The people are the 2.4 million residents of the 396 communities in the Connecticut River watershed, which encompasses the refuge’s legislated project area. Refuge manager French, staff and partners have been bringing the refuge to the people for three years via the Watershed on Wheels (WoW) Express, a mobile visitor center.

Now that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has designated the Connecticut River as the first national blueway, French hopes to bring more people to the refuge.

Last spring’s national blueway designation was a milestone.

“It’s pretty darn impressive when you remember that 40–50 years ago the Connecticut River was described as the nation’s best landscaped sewer,” says French. He sees the blueway designation as an endorsement of the Friends of Conte Refuge and the watershed partnership concept.

Conte Refuge “is the only true watershed project in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Secretary said, ‘It’s not only okay; I want to see more of this,’ ” says French. “It’s my hope that other refuge managers will seize the opportunity created by Secretarial Order 3321, look up into their watersheds and figure out how to network their refuge into a watershed partnership, making the Service and the System more relevant to people and beneficial for our trust resources.”

The Friends and more than 50 conservation, recreation, economic and education partners have networked to form an association of private/federal/state/local/non–governmental organizations to increase outdoor recreation and the conservation estate that, French says, “is approaching two million acres.” In other words, more than 20 percent of the watershed’s 7.2 million acres are conserved.

French, the Take Pride in America 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service federal land manager of the year, expects to use the national blueway status to engage even more people and federal agencies in the watershed.

The refuge plans to work with partners in coming years to establish a water trail along the Connecticut River’s 410–mile course from Canada to Long Island Sound. The objective, says French, is to have boat access every 10 miles and overnight accommodations (public or private campsites/lodging) every five miles. The water trail would be educational, too. Information panels and QR codes en route would highlight natural history, wildlife biology and points of interest.

The goal is to give people a top–flight outdoor experience within the watershed. “If we can strike a balance between sustaining high–quality habitat while accommodating the demand for quality and compatible recreation, we’ll have to do a lot less advocating for our trust resources—because others will do it for us,” says French.

Nonetheless, Conte Refuge remains committed to bringing the refuge to the people. It is developing three new outreach endeavors to cultivate citizen stewards. Conte Corners are refuge exhibits at museums, environmental centers and elsewhere.Adopt a Habitat encourages schools to help manage watershed land similar to a refuge. The Biological Assessment Trailer (BAT) Express serves as a mobile lab that supports plant and animal inventorying events at schools.

Then there’s the WoW Express.

“It takes the show on the road, promoting Service messages at schools, camps, fairs and community events. It allows us to introduce the Service, the System, the refuge, the watershed and our trust resources to rural, suburban and urban audiences alike,” says French. “The WoW Express allows us to make strategic first contacts, but we have to take the next step to nurture the relationship to expand our relevancy to a diverse constituency. Beyond our mission and related successful outcomes, relevancy is the big thing.”