By Trisha Sanchez, Donor Care Manager – Friends of Bosque del Apache
Friends of Bosque del Apache Board President, Jonathan Manley, and I recently had the great privilege of attending the first National Friends Workshop to be held since before the pandemic, hosted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) Headquarters staff out of Washington D.C. at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
The campus is stunning! Nestled within a northern hardwood forest and bathed in mist and dappled green sunlight, which streams in filtered through the trees, it is situated about an hour from the D.C. area, right on the banks of the Potomac River just upstream from the hallowed grounds of the Antietam Battlefield.
Despite being very near a small town and fairly near the constant hustle and bustle of our nation’s capital, this area has a quiet reverence about it, almost as if by exiting the highway and entering the forest, you have crossed the threshold to another dimension. (And isn’t that always so true when we put our phones and computers away, turn the TVs off, lace up the hiking boots and set out to actively seek the wild that is still all around us, hidden in plain sight?)
Part state-of-the-art training center, part meditative retreat, and part museum, NCTC is a living monument to the nearly 150 year mission, history, and heritage of the Service (beginning with the formation of the US Commission of Fish and Fisheries in 1871) and a celebration of the novel and somewhat radical North American Model for Conservation which we, among all the world, are so fortunate to enjoy.
Described as a walking campus, NCTC consists of four “dorm-style” residence halls, two classroom buildings, an auditorium, two museum display buildings, and a commons area – complete with cafeteria, small store, lounge/bar, and a gym, all connected via a network of hiking trails.
Once we stepped foot off the bus, we didn’t see or hear another vehicle for the next 72 hours! I was struck at first by the almost deafening silence of the place, but once my senses adjusted to the perspective shift, I began to hear it – the constant cacophony of bird and insect song that serves as an unending soundtrack at NCTC, which is tasked with the mission of training and educating the nation’s natural resource managers to meet the goal of conserving fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the benefit of the American public. It is a place where Service employees and partners can be inspired by the conservation legacy of which they (and we all) are a vital part. This quiet and picturesque setting, tucked away from the world, does a superb job of mentally preparing NCTC’s weekly fluctuating groups of learners to receive and absorb the knowledge, contemplation, collaboration, and sort of innovative thinking they came there seeking.
Jonathan and I were among over 200 attendees, each one a kindred spirit representing refuges and national fish hatcheries from literally every corner of the nation. Among the crowd were some familiar faces and we networked with many new friends as well. The overarching theme of the workshop seemed to be that we are stronger together. Cynthia Martinez, Chief of the NWRS (and native New Mexican!) spoke about the wealth of knowledge and experience in the room and how inspiring it is to see each individual’s passion and commitment for our various unique refuges and how when we band together, we realize we are all part of something so much bigger than ourselves. There are currently 567 national wildlife refuges and 70 national fish hatcheries, creating a network of continually protected lands spanning as far north as the Arctic, as far south as Puerto Rico, as far east as Guam, and as far west as Hawaii. With grassroots Friends groups representing many of them, we are indeed a powerful force when networking together – I dare say a force to be reckoned with, if we can only reach our fullest potential!
An additional “unofficial theme” for the workshop seemed to be the dire need for Friends groups to embrace their role as advocates for their own special refuges and hatcheries. There is no denying that the Service faces unprecedented challenges as we look towards the future, particularly with funding. The Service as a whole has been woefully underfunded for over 13 years, resulting in inadequate staffing at nearly every field station in the nation. In fact, there are 800 fewer Service employees today than in 2011! On top of that, add in both the expected inflation for the last 13 years (which budgets have not kept pace with), plus the record inflation we’ve seen in recent months, and also the toll that the pandemic conditions took on refuges (increased visitation coupled with dramatically decreased volunteer headcounts) and the result is what we’re seeing today: Service staff are struggling to meet their refuge’s vital and unique conservation needs and goals, despite their best and incredibly valiant efforts (and if you’ve ever spent time around Service employees, you’ll know that they are some of the hardest working and most passionate folks walking this planet!)
Truth be told, Friends groups nationwide, with both physical and financial support, have heretofore played a huge role in keeping the Service afloat during these trying times, but we must now embrace the fact that times have changed and nothing is about to get any easier. Refuges are on the front lines of climate change (we’ve seen it firsthand with the water challenges at Bosque del Apache). We all like to highlight the amazing accomplishments that staff are achieving at our refuges, but it’s becoming clear that it’s time to shift the script and begin painting the true picture of the real challenges and losses America’s refuges are feeling. While it is true that we may never recover what has been lost and we cannot expect to regain what used to be, what we can do is shift the focus to what is needed now and form a new game plan for the future, before it is too late.
It is more important now than ever before that we, the members, volunteers, and staff of refuge Friends groups nationwide embolden ourselves to seek out our representatives in Congress and make them understand that the National Wildlife Refuge System is in crisis. It is our job and our responsibility to do for the Service what it cannot do for itself – and that is advocate for more funding! Follow this link to find contact information for New Mexico’s Congressional Representatives in Washington D.C. and let them know that refuges matter to the future health of this nation and the American people.