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Two USFWS employees chatting in front of a marsh.
Information icon Nancy Fernandez and Monica Harris share a moment at the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Connecting urban and rural

A young woman in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uniform.
Nancy Fernandez at the under-construction, all-recycled material greenhouse at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Savannah, Georgia — Nancy Fernandez’s job is to lure more Americans into the great outdoors. Sounds simple enough. But here’s what she’s up against:

  • Teens spend about 20 hours weekly playing computers or watching TVs.
  • Parents complain of being too busy to enjoy nature.
  • More than half of non-white American adults say the outdoors is unsafe.
  • Most of the nation’s wildlife refuges are far from the nation’s population centers.
  • Latinos, in particular, mistrust the federal government and people in uniform.

People like Fernandez.

She’s the “urban outreach coordinator” for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service across most of coastal Georgia and the southeastern corner of South Carolina. It’s her job to get kids and their parents, African-Americans and Hispanics in particular, onto the six publicly accessible refuges that dot the coastline from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina to Darien, Georgia.

It’s not an easy task.

“POCs — people of color — are my main target,” said Fernandez, while touring an under-construction greenhouse made from recycled tires and plastic bottles at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. High school students and other members of the community are building the greenhouse.

“But how do I connect with these communities?,” she continued. “What are their interests? It can be very frustrating. Here I am coming with so many ideas. But really I’m starting at ground zero. I’m having to rethink things and start again.”

As America changes, so too does its relationship with nature. About 80 percent of the population lives in cities. Urban areas fill with African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics, all with different relationships to the outdoors.

Rural pastimes like hunting and fishing — key draws at many of the nation’s 563 wildlife refuges — wane in popularity. Hyper-busy daily lives keep Americans from spending time outdoors.

Fernandez, 26, is the perfect antidote for an American constituency increasingly disconnected from nature. She’s the daughter of hardscrabble Mexican immigrants and fluent in Spanish. She has a B.A. in anthropology and an affinity for hiking and kayaking. She’s indefatigable with an infectious demeanor. She’s also the rare Latina working for the Service in the Deep South.

An employee on the bank of a pond looking to a hawk in the blue sky.
Nancy Fernandez gazes over a pond at the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

“It takes time, people and patience to get people outdoors, and that can be difficult because sometimes organizations think we can just make it happen,” said Jose Gonzalez, executive director of the nonprofit Latino Outdoors, which introduces families to nature. “Basically, it takes people like Nancy who have the experience and ambicultural leadership to relate to a community and connect it to nature.”

Connecting with all Americans

Breanna Harris joined Fernandez one recent Thursday morning at the Yamacraw Village public housing complex in downtown Savannah to talk container gardens. Harris, 12, is a Girl Scout, Future Farmer of America and avid proponent of small-scale production of potatoes, squash, cucumbers, broccoli and lettuce.

The handful of Savannahians listened raptly to Harris’ presentation and followed up with questions on container size, planting schedule and whether cilantro would thrive or die in an urban garden. (Answer: thrive.)

The gathering in the community center’s linoleum-tiled basement was part of Fernandez’ outreach to low-income African-Americans who can help spread the wildlife refuge gospel. Fernandez revels in “the awesome job of going out into the community” and cajoling non-traditional outdoorsmen and women to visit a refuge, take a hike, eyeball an alligator and experience nature. She uses her life story to try and demolish cultural barriers.

A small alligator in the tall grass.
A baby alligator at the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

“I was born and raised in California,” Fernandez tells the handful of Savannah residents. “My parents were fieldworkers. They did back-breaking work picking strawberries and other fruits.”

She grew up in Santa Cruz in a garage apartment. The family moved to San Jose where her father worked as a janitor, her mother in a factory. Fernandez didn’t yet embrace the outdoors; gang members hung out in the neighborhood parks. The family pursued the American Dream to a house in Modesto and custodial jobs.

After college, Fernandez took a series of internships with the National Park Service in Oregon, Wyoming, Washington and Atlanta. She was hired as an urban ranger by Fish and Wildlife earlier this year.

“My parents worked in the fields so long that when I got my diploma they wanted me to work in an office,” Fernandez said. “So here I am going outdoors in my jobs — that’s not what they expected.”

She has her work cut out for her. In a no-punches-pulled 2011 report, Fish and Wildlife admitted to “challenges in connecting with all Americans. We struggle to remain relevant to urban citizens who have competing priorities and few outside experiences; we strain to find ways to connect with young Americans who are technologically fluent, but deficient in nature experiences; and we toil to recruit and retain a more inclusive workforce that reflects the diversity of America.”

Earlier this year, DJ Case and Associates, a conservation education and communications firm, released The Nature of Americans study on the outdoor habits and perceptions of 12,000 Americans. Twelve year olds, the report shows, spend 19 hours weekly on computers or TVs. More than half of African-American and Hispanic adults said the outdoors is unsafe. And more than half of all adults spend five hours or less outdoors weekly.

There were encouraging results: Four out of five kids said contact with nature makes them creative, happy, healthy and smarter; and 75 percent of adults agreed that the number of outdoor and wildlife programs should be increased.

“The health, spiritual and psychological benefits to spending time in nature, especially in urban areas which can be very crowded and not conducive to serenity, shouldn’t be a luxury,” said Rena Borkhataria, director of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of Florida. “It’s in the refuge service’s mission to provide opportunities for recreation to pretty much all of society.”

A challenge

Bluffton bills itself as “the heart” of the South Carolina lowcountry and serves as the gateway to the beaches and condos of Hilton Head. Fernandez envisions Bluffton as a butterfly sanctuary, as well as a recruitment hotspot, along with nearby Hardeeville, for Hispanics in need of outdoor recreation. She helped Latino students create a pollinator garden at the local high school. Other kids built another garden alongside the chamber of commerce. A third is planned for the town’s Oyster Factory Park.

“I have a lot of ideas,” Fernandez said as an orange and black Gulf fritillary butterfly danced among the milkweed, cone flowers and passion vines alongside the chamber. “I’m very ambitious.”

An orange and black butterfly perched on a yellow flower.
A Gulf fritillary butterfly at a pollinator garden planted by Nancy Fernandez and others at the Greater Bluffton (S.C.) Chamber of Commerce. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

South Carolina’s Latino population has soared 150 percent since 2010, according to the U.S. Census. Fernandez targets the newcomers at back-to-school events, public housing enclaves, health fairs and farmers’ markets in Bluffton and Hardeeville. In Savannah, she sets up a booth during festivals along River Street or Forsyth Park.

Fernandez has arranged tours of the Savannah refuge. High school students from Bluffton and other community members are helping to build the greenhouse at the visitors’ center. They’ll plant milkweed seeds this winter and plant the shoots at their schools in the spring. A partnership with Unity in the Community, the Savannah nonprofit that arranged the container garden demonstration, will bring African-American youth to the refuge for wagon tours.

The refuge sponsored two Youth Conservation Corps groups last summer and eight high school kids, mostly minorities, earned minimum wage building trails, cutting grass, banding ducks and educating younger students about the wonders of pollinators.

An employee in uniform hangs a banner.
Nancy Fernandez rolls up a Fish and Wildlife banner outside the Greater Bluffton (S.C.) Chamber of Commerce. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

There have been failures, too. Latino families in Hardeeville who signed up for a wellness walk at Pinckney didn’t show up. A planned video hookup between Bluffton high schoolers and Mexican university students to discuss the wonders of monarch butterfly migration was canceled. Getting Hispanics to visit the refuge isn’t easy. Hard stares sometimes greet Fernandez when she shows up in the community in uniform in a government vehicle.

“Their instinct is fear. They think I’m immigration,” she said. “It’s just been a big challenge. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Is it worth it?’ I’m not afraid to say I’ve cried.”

Fernandez, though, perseveres.

“This is a challenge I will overcome. I am a masochist,” she said, laughing. “But I am strong and resilient and I’ll do a better job each time wherever I go.”


Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist, (404) 679-4028

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