May was quite a month for the National Wildlife Refuge System, as you will read about in our Inside Washington update in this month’s Flyer. Thanks to efforts by more than 100 Refuge Friends Groups and many other advocates, we successfully thwarted an effort to give away more than 3,000 acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge via a provision that had been included in the Puerto Rico debt relief bill. At a time like this, we are so very grateful to the growing number of advocates who are helping make a difference for America’s national wildlife refuges. You can read more about our work on Capitol Hill in this month’s Flyer.
As Spring migration continues, this is also the time of year when the National Wildlife Refuge Association takes stock of the past fiscal year and prepares for the next one, which begins in July. To that end, our board of directors met for our annual meeting at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Manteo, NC to review our progress, vote in new board members and say goodbye to board members whose terms are expiring.
We are fortunate at the Refuge Association to have such an esteemed board with representation from former Refuge System employees, Refuge Friends Groups, and a variety of other dedicated individuals whose expertise in different professions gives us a wealth of knowledge and perspective that we greatly value. We are honored to have some new members joining our board, and always sad to say goodbye to those whose terms have expired. You can read about these passionate people here.
Once our board business was complete, we were lucky enough to spend the weekend touring Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge as well as Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. If you find yourself visiting the Outer Banks, these places are not to be missed!
Finally, we know that this is an incredibly busy time of year for Refuge Friends, many of whom are hosting birding festivals or assisting a growing number of visitors who come to their local wildlife refuge see migratory species that are on the move. Springtime refuge events are not only fun, they truly showcase the incredible array of wildlife that can be enjoyed this time of year at a national wildlife refuge. One such festival was the annual Tualatin River Bird Festival, which celebrated its 20th year this season! Congratulations to Friends of Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge and others who have made this a successful annual event.
With summer just around the corner, be sure to take time out and enjoy your local wildlife refuge, and I hope to see you there!
David Houghton, President
ON THE REFUGE
Alligator River – Land of Water and Fire
Yes, you can spot American alligators at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge – but that’s just one of many species you may encounter at this coastal wetland refuge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
The National Refuge Association traveled to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Manteo, NC for its annual board meeting this month, and got to see first-hand this incredible resource that contains rivers, wetlands and peat soils that provide excellent habitat for black bears, red wolves and multiple other species.
While touring the refuge, we spotted at least one alligator, several prothonotary warblers, two black bears, and had a chance to hear red wolves howling in the woods at night.
The visit came just weeks after the refuge was involved in fighting the Whipping Creek Road Fire in Hyde and Dare counties that began just south of the refuge and the Dare County Bombing Range.
The fire, which began as two separate small fires on April 18, grew quickly and merged into a significant fire event that spread onto the refuge. By the time the fire was contained and burning out, it had burned 15,453 acres, including 7,692 acres on the refuge, 6,940 acres on state and private lands and 821 acres on the Dare County Bombing Range.
A total of 153 firefighters and support staff battled the blaze at a cost of about $2 million. Since this was a peat fire, in organic, flammable soils, specialized equipment was required, including infrared camera technology to locate hot spots in the peat soil, specialty Flextrack heavy equipment that crawl through the swamp to put in firelines, and planes known as Super Scoopers that skim the surface of a water body and scoop up thousands of gallons of water which is then dropped over fire hot spots and control lines.
Yet, what made a significant difference in fighting this fire was keeping the sponge-like peat soils wet. Peat soils are the primary soil type in eastern North Carolina. When these peat soils are dry, wildfire can burn not only the surface but down deep in the soil and smolder for months only to flare up again into trees and vegetation at any time. In spite of dry conditions this spring, refuge managers took advantage of timely rainfall this year and blocked drainage ditches to raise the water table to help keep the organic peat soils hydrated.
Initial assessments indicate the fire had little impact on breeding animals and nesting birds. Biologists are already seeing new sprouts coming up from the scorched area, much like they would after a controlled burn. The nesting season has just begun so any birds impacted can nest again.
Fire is not inherently bad; it is nature’s tool to create change and to return old growth to early successional stages. However, in today’s built environment, fire can be catastrophic and costly. Refuge staff have noted in eastern North Carolina these habitats will always have fire, but restoring a more natural water regime will help hold future fires to a shorter duration, meaning less ground fire, less smoke and less cost.
Our visit came during a few rainstorms, showcasing the contrast between the recent parched conditions and the current wet conditions on the refuge.
Alligator River National Refuge is an excellent place to observe wildlife, and offers tram tours and a self-guided Wildlife Drive – all within a short drive of Nags Head, Cape Hatteras and other popular Outbanks destinations. To learn more, visit the refuge website.
If you’d like to see your refuge highlighted, please email Christine McGowan. We’d love to speak with you!
THE REFUGE ASSOCIATION IN ACTION
New Slate of Officers Joins National Wildlife Refuge Association Board of Directors
The National Wildlife Refuge Association is pleased to welcome three new and two returning members to its Board of Directors. The new slate of officers was voted in during the Refuge Association’s annual meeting held in Manteo, NC May 20.
New board members include Dragana Connaughton, of Palm Beach, FL; Alan Palisoul, of Bethesda, MD; and Cheryl Hart, of Portland, OR. Returning board members include William Buchanan, Jr., of New Canaan, CT and Tom Goettel, of South Thomaston, ME.
“Our new directors bring great professional diversity to our board,” said David Houghton, President of the Refuge Association. “From real estate and finance to public land policy and representation from Refuge Friends Groups, these individuals will add a wealth of knowledge that will help the Refuge Association tackle the tough challenges facing the Refuge System today.”
Connaughton is a senior sales associate with Sotheby’s International Realty, and is also an award-winning nature photographer whose work has been featured in National Wildlife magazine, as well as in exhibits in several galleries. Among her awards is the 2010 grand prize in the Palm Beach Post’s 6th annual “Focus on Nature” contest. She specializes in premier estates and condominiums in Palm Beach and has represented buyers and sellers in the acquisition and disposition of some of the finest properties in the area. She possesses extensive knowledge of the community; its history, schools, and civic and charitable organizations and she is skilled and experienced in complex real estate negotiations unique to high-end properties.
Her full biography can be found here.
Palisoul is retired from the Solicitor’s Office of the Department of the Interior after almost 30 years of service. As a Senior Attorney at Interior his focus was on providing legal services to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, primarily to the National Wildlife Refuge System and migratory bird programs. He worked on the creation of the Refuge System Improvement Act and played a major role in the development of the regulations that followed it. Following on that work, he helped develop and teach a course introducing the new compatibility regulations and policy to each of the Service’s regions. He has assisted numerous refuge managers in their implementation. His full biography can be found here.
Hart is a member of the board of the Friends of Tualatin River National Wildlife refuge. Her professional background is in Strategic Planning; Organizational Development; Grant Writing; and Program planning, implementation and evaluation and education. She was President of the Board of the Friends Group from 2011 until 2016 and was a member of Friends Academy 6 at the National Conservation Training Center. The Friends of Tualatin River NWR celebrated its 20th Anniversary as a Friends Group in 2013 and was honored to be the NWRA Friends Group of the Year for 2014. Her full biography can be found here.
Two members are returning to the board: William Buchanan, Jr. and Tom Goettel.
Buchanan stepped off for a year, and is re-joining, while Goettel was voted in for a second term. Their bios can be found here.
Three board members, Edith Eddy, Simon Perkins and Tom Prall, left the board as their terms expired.
For those who have been following along the past couple weeks, it is no secret that the National Wildlife Refuge System came dangerously close to losing thousands of acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico. Thanks to a collaborative effort from citizen advocates, Friends groups, Hispanic organizations, and other conservation NGOs, the provision to give away more than 3000 acres of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge was removed from the Puerto Rico debt relief bill!
The Vieques National Wildlife Refuge contains more than 17,000 acres of rare habitat including the only subtropical moist forest in the entire Refuge System. Its beaches provide important nesting sites for leatherback, hawksbill and green sea turtles, and its 300,000 annual visitors pump money into the local economy as they enjoy snorkeling, fishing, swimming, hiking, and other outdoor recreation activities.
Thanks to your letters, emails, phone calls, and outreach from conservation groups based on the island of Vieques and Friends organizations across the country, lawmakers on the Hill heard your voices and the provision was stripped from the bill.
Friends groups constituted an especially powerful voice as 122 organizations from across the country came together and sent a letter to the House Natural Resources Committee urging them to oppose any legislation that would give away the refuge.
“Irreplaceable wildlife habitat would have been lost had this reckless provision been approved,” said David Houghton, President of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “Vieques National Wildlife Refuge is an invaluable asset to Puerto Rico that provides excellent local eco-tourism employment opportunities while also providing priceless wildlife habitat for threatened and endangered sea turtles throughout the entire Puerto Rican archipelago.”
National Defense Authorization Act
The House passed its version of the Defense Bill (H.R. 4909) earlier this month, and the Senate took up its version (S. 2943) on the floor this week. While Senate Armed Services Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has kept the Senate Defense Bill free from environmental riders, unfortunately the same cannot be said about the House version.
The House Defense Bill contains several damaging environmental riders, including an amendment that would would transfer management authority of approximately 850,000 thousand acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada to the Air Force. At 1.6 million acres, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge is the largest refuge in the lower 48 states. The refuge was established to protect desert bighorn sheep and the hundreds of other plant and animal species found in the Mojave and Great Basin Deserts.
Included among other environmental riders is language that would allow states to block the federal government’s greater sage grouse conservation plan that was hashed out last year together with states and local stakeholders. Additionally, the Department of the Interior would be restricted from altering the sage grouse’s conservation status under the Endangered Species Act until 2026.
These provisions were included in the preliminary versions of last year’s House Defense bill as well, however they were removed when the House and Senate merged their bills. We will continue to work with our Senate champions to ensure these harmful riders are absent from the final version of the bill.
Appropriations season is officially underway on the Hill, and it is expected to be a marathon process lasting well into the Fall. We are supporting the President’s FY17 budget request of $506.6 million for the Refuge System’s Operations and Maintenance Account, an increase of $25.6 million from FY16’s enacted level.
To lower costs under reduced budgets, refuges have had to cut numerous staff positions and sacrifice vital habitat management, visitor services, and maintenance activities. Even critical volunteer programs, which add about 20% to the Refuge System workforce for free, have been cut back or completely eliminated.
Despite this severely constrained budget, the Refuge System generates approximately 35,000 jobs and provides $2.4 billion in economic output each year. For every $1 appropriated to the Refuge System, an average of nearly $5 is returned to local economies. The Refuge System requires adequate funding to sustain these economic, social, and biological benefits for all Americans.
As the appropriations bills undergo their markups we expect to see attempts to attach harmful riders to the bills – like the proposal to construct a road through designated wilderness in Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. We will continue to fight for adequate Refuge System funding and oppose dangerous environmental riders throughout the appropriations process.
To stay informed on how to Take Action to support the Refuge System, you can subscribe to our Refuge Action Network by clicking here.
REFUGE FRIENDS CONNECT
20th Annual Tualatin River Bird Festival a Great Success
Nearly 1,000 people came out May 21 to celebrate wildlife and wild places at the 20th annual Tualatin River Bird Festival at Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge. The annual event, hosted by the Friends of Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, is timed with spring migration to showcase the incredible variety of species that stop over at the refuge on their way north, as well as the many resident species that call the refuge home.
According to Bonnie Anderson, a volunteer with Friends of Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, the event was a great success! The day-long event featured dozens of exhibitors sharing information with visitors about birding, hunting, fishing and other wildlife-dependent recreation and education.
The day began with an early morning bird walk to listen to the “dawn chorus” and learn to identify birds by sight and sound with experienced birders. Later in the morning, the festival featured hands-on educational arts and crafts to help children learn about nature; little ones tried their hand at building a bird and butterfly house for their backyard, and participated in a scavenger hunt.
Other activities included fishing, archery and bird identification as well as Conestoga wagon rides around the Refuge. Local environmental groups were on hand to share information, and the Nature Store featured lots of wildlife-oriented gifts.
One of the biggest hits was the new “graffiti bird” canvas bags to celebrate the Migratory Bird Treaty Centennial. The treaty is a convention between the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) for the protection of migratory birds – also called the Migratory Bird Treaty, signed on Aug. 16, 1916. Children colored in more than 700 bags.
Friends of Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge coordinates the bird festival each year. The group was the recipient of the 2014 Friends Group of the Year award from the National Wildlife Refuge Association.
Birding festivals are popular this time of year, and many Refuge Friends Groups play an invaluable role in organizing and hosting these fun, educational events on national wildlife refuges. For a list of other bird festivals at national wildlife refuges, visit the Refuge System’s website.
MORE HEADLINES FROM THIS MONTH
GETTING TO KNOW Jackie Orsulak, Refuge Volunteer and board member of the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society
Alligator River NWR is Best Known For: Because of it’s name, it’s known for the alligator, and my favorite is the black bear, but the most important species on the refuge is the critically endangered red wolf that was brought back from the brink of extinction by captive breeding.
Alligator River NWR’s Best Kept Secret: To come on Sunday mornings when there aren’t very many people.
The Most Interesting Species on Alligator River NWR: For me, it’s the black bear. I’m a big bear fan and I come to photograph them.
My Favorite Activity on Alligator River NWR: Photographing the black bears, and other species. My favorite photo I’ve taken was of a big male bear reading the Wildlife Drive sign.
The Best Time to Visit Alligator River NWR: It depends on what you’re coming to see – in the fall, the migratory birds; for black bears, June and July is mating season. There are so many bears here – I’ve seen 55 in four hours. It’s an awesome place!
Friends, are you connected?
RefugeFriendsConnect.org is a membership site that is managed by Refuge Association and a group of volunteers. If you are a Friends group member or are refuge staff working with Friends you are welcome to join.
Keep an eye out for these upcoming events:
June 3: Head to the Helen C. Finske Visitors Center on Friday morning to join forces with fellow volunteers and help eradicate invasive species at the Great Swamp NWR Complex (NJ)
June 4: Celebrate National Fishing and Boating Week with the Blackwater NWR at their 14th Annual Youth Fishing Fun Day (MD)
June 4: Head out to the Rappahannock River Valley NWR to catch a whopper and enjoy a free lunch at their 2016 Kids Fishing Day (VA)
June 4: Join the Friends of Trinity River NWR for their Free Family Fishing Day – they’ll bring the rods and bait, all you have to do is reel ‘em in (TX)
June 8: Learn all about wildlife, prairie habitat, and more on the South Shore Tram Tour at the Audubon NWR (ND)
The National Wildlife Refuge Association is on the cutting edge of wildlife habitat conservation and citizen engagement in the United States. But we need your help to advance our work protecting large landscapes, educating decision-makers in Washington, and mobilizing refuge Friends in support of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Please make a generous donation today!
Flyer Masthead Photo Credit: Kestrel, Wade Dowdy