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Alaska On Fire! (July 2019)

by Poppy Benson, Outreach Coordinator

Alaska is burning and so are Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuges.  Over one million acres in 400 separate fires are burning across the state.  Forty-five of these fires are on refuges with 200,000 acres aflame.  Almost every one of Alaska’s 16 refuges has had a fire with the majority of the fire activity on Kenai, Yukon Flats, and Arctic Refuges.  The largest refuge fire is the 100,000 acre Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.  This fire was started by lightning in early June in a limited fire management area. Firefighting efforts are concentrated on protecting the towns of Sterling and Cooper Landing, the highway, and HEAs power line while allowing the fire to burn in the wild part of the refuge.   Backfires lit along the Sterling Highway and on the western edge of the fire have been very successful in boxing in the fire and preventing it from spreading in the direction of Sterling. 

A real benefit of this fire is that it is burning up heavy fuels which will make the towns and the refuge much safer for decades from the risk of a more catastrophic fire.    Kenai Refuge biologists learned in earlier studies that black spruce burns about every 80 years, and it has been 80 years since this area last burned.  In the higher elevations, the fire is burning up spruce bark beetle-killed white spruce.  It is a fire-dependent landscape and will adapt.  Positive impacts on wildlife will come as the fire will alter the habitat to an earlier successional stage where “moose food” such as aspen and birch will sprout in the burned areas.  The fire has exhibited some extreme fire behavior burning in the tundra and riparian areas.  The negative impacts of that on wildlife are yet to be determined.  The biggest human impact from the fire has been the smoke which has been particularly hard on communities east of the refuge.  Numerous refuge trails, campgrounds, and public use cabins have been closed due to smoke and fire crews working in the area but none have been damaged so far.  The famed Swan Lake Canoe Route, just west of the fire, has also not been impacted.  

Fire conditions have been extreme because a series of high-pressure domes parked on top of the Kenai Peninsula for weeks preventing rain, creating record temperatures, drying fuels and preventing smoke from rising into the high atmosphere.  According to USFWS Regional Fire Management Coordinator Doug Alexander, “I’ve been up here 10 years and I can’t believe how hot it is.  It is nearly 90 degrees every day on that fire.”   Record high temperatures have been recorded throughout the state with Anchorage hitting 90 degrees for the first time ever.  Fortunately, in just the last few days, the normal marine airflow has begun to return, giving firefighters a break by moderating fire behavior.  You can follow the progress of the Swan Lake fire here

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Get Involved: Kenai River Clean-up, September 6 – 8, 2019

Do good, have fun and see more of the Kenai Refuge.  September 6-8.  Sportsmen’s Landing, Cooper Landing. 

Friends will join Alaska Fly Fishers in doing an end of season clean-up of Sportsmen Landing, and downstream beaches all of which are on the Kenai Refuge.  This is our second year partnering with the Fly Fishers, the Kenai Watershed Forum, the Refuge and the Forest Service on this event.  We had such a great time last year what with raft trips, free food, and live music,  we are making it an annual event. See our trip report from last year here.

Arrive Friday evening and set up your trailer or tent in the Sportsman Landing campground reserved just for this event.  Saturday morning, after a continental breakfast, teams will either float the river cleaning beaches or clean around the landing, campgrounds and parking areas.  The Kenai Refuge will bring several boats to take Friends downriver to clean refuge beaches.  That evening the Alaska Fly Fishers will put on a BBQ for all participants with prizes and live music!  Sunday morning, breakfast is followed by a Friends sponsored hike on a yet to be determined trail in the Skilak Lake Road area  

For more information and to sign up, contact Tim Shipman, trip coordinator, at tim.shipman@gmail.com or call (907) 252-8450

This promises to be a very fun event that will continue to help build an alliance with the Fly Fishers, Kenai Watershed Forum, the refuge, and other partners.

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2019 July Advocacy Report

Advocacy Update

by David Raskin, Friends Board President

The battles continue to save the Izembek and Arctic Refuges and Bristol Bay from destructive developments and limit the impact of the expected predator control regulations for the Kenai Refuge.
 
Izembek NWR
 We have no news concerning the Department of Justice appeal of the decision by the Anchorage Federal District Court that granted the motion for summary judgment in our lawsuit that challenged the legality of the land exchange and road through the heart of the Izembek Wilderness. This decision had halted all activity related to the transfer of Refuge land and the construction of a road. Although the DOI instructed the USFWS to continue working on a contaminants analysis regarding the lands that they would exchange, there is no indication of any work that would violate the decision by the Court.  We assume that the government is  continue its efforts to figure out how to respond to the court order and explain their decision process to satisfy the court. Our conservation partners and legal team are closely monitoring any such actions and will mount all available legal and legislative challenges to counter any attempt by the Department of Interior (DOI) to revive the unacceptable land exchange and destructive road.
 
Arctic NWR
The DOI continues to press forward with plans to sell leases for oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. BLM is in the process of preparing a final EIS, which is expected to be released in August and a decision soon after the close of the 30-day comment period. Since the DEIS was so hastily done and grossly inadequate, without a new DEIS process it is likely that a Final EIS will be insufficient to withstand legal challenges. Lease sales are planned this year.

The proposed seismic exploration is expected to begin next season and extend over two years. It requires a plan that would satisfy the Incidental Take Regulations (ITR) regarding denning polar bears and marine mammals. The recently-proposed low-altitude aerial survey appears to have been abandoned. The French company CGG stated that they no plans to conduct aerial surveys of the Coastal Plain. This means that prior to the planned lease sale, there may be no new information about the amount of oil under the area. This is another indication of industry’s waning interest in drilling the Arctic Refuge. The conservation community is closely monitoring these developments and will take whatever actions are necessary to prevent the undesirable impacts of seismic exploration and oil leases.
 
A positive development is the Restore Protections Bill (HR 1146) that would remove the tax bill provision that authorized the sale of leases in the Coastal Plain. The bill was introduced by Representative Jared Huffman and had a record 182 cosponsors. It was reported out of committee and a full House vote is expected in July. Although it is expected to pass the House, the Senate is unlikely to pass it.
 
Kenai NWR Predator Control Regulations
 The proposed Kenai Refuge predator control regulations have not been released, but are expected very soon. The most serious threat to wildlife is the expected regulation that will allow hunting of brown bears over bait.  At a minimum, we will urge the Kenai Refuge to develop a permit process to limit the areas of the Refuge and the number of bears to be taken consistent with mandated management practices and potential threats to the brown bear population. The conservation community is closely monitoring any developments and is prepared to provide the responses necessary to protect the integrity and biological diversity of the Kenai Refuge wildlife.
 
Pebble Mine
Friends joined 13 conservation organizations on the submission of a 433-page comment on the Corps of Engineers Pebble Mine DEIS. These comments were prepared and submitted by Trustees for Alaska and the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program. The breadth and contents of this extensive set of comments and its numerous attachments document the grossly inadequate DEIS prepared by the Corps. We hope that this horrible project with its potential impacts on Bristol Bay salmon fisheries and many national wildlife refuges will ultimately be stopped after a 15-year battle. We thank the staffs of Trustees and Sierra Club for this monumental effort.

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Friends: Assisting Alaska’s Refuges Via Membership Fees, Donations, and Grants

by Betty Siegel, Volunteer Coordinator

Village kids on the Tetlin Refuge will be peeking under the ice next winter and learning to fish this summer with equipment purchased through a grant Friends secured from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.  Friends were awarded a $6800 grant for a special initiative to enhance fishing and hunting on refuges.  Tetlin Environmental Educator Tim Lorenzini sought the Friends help:
  • to expand his school field trips
  • increase the courses he could offer at Native Culture Camps, and
  • create new Refuge sponsored community events. 
In addition to the fishing equipment, the grant purchased a regulation teaching archery set complete with targets, and the all-important ice fishing tents in a climate where school field trips often take place in below zero temperatures. Competing for grants is one thing Friends can do to help refuges but it takes volunteer grant writers and volunteer refuge liaisons to work closely with “their” refuge to make this happen.  If you have these skills, or would like to learn, contact us at info@alaskarefugefriends.org.

According to Tetlin Refuge Liaison, Poppy Benson, “The grant writing seemed like a huge amount of work but now that it is done, I feel like I really accomplished something. I have great confidence that the Tetlin Refuge will put the equipment to good use to strengthen their relationship with their communities and how can that not be good for wildlife?!”


But grants aren’t the only way Friends helps refuges financially.  With our membership fees and generous individual donations at the $100, $500 and $1000 level, Friends have been able to donate $1000 to help the Kenai Refuge fund school buses to bring kids to the refuge for field trips, fund all the prizes for the Migratory Bird Calendar contest which is so important to rural schools, buy wood chips for a new trail at Tetlin Refuge Headquarters, bring a dozen urban youth to Homer for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, send volunteers to science camps, and pay for travel for Artist in Residence Lindsay Carron to capture in paintings the Yukon Flats Refuge.

And then there is the cookie money.  What is cookie money you ask?  Well the Fish & Wildlife Service cannot legally buy food for a public event but if a Refuge Manager is flying into a village to have a meeting with the elders, he or she had better be bringing coffee and cookies!  Last year we provided funds for refreshments for six refuge events. Friends is able to do this because of your membership fees and donations. You can be confident we use your money for the refuges wisely and generously. To join, renew, or make a donation, CLICK HERE .Thank you on behalf of Friends and the 16 Alaska Refuges!
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2019 June Advocacy Report

Advocacy Update

by David Raskin, Friends Board President

The battles continue to save the Izembek and Arctic Refuges from destructive developments and limit the impact of the expected predator control regulations for the Kenai Refuge.

Izembek NWR

The Department of Justice has appealed the decision by the Anchorage Federal District Court that granted the motion for summary judgment in our lawsuit that challenged the legality of the land exchange and road through the heart of the Izembek Wilderness. This decision had halted all activity related to the transfer of Refuge land and the construction of a road. The defendants have now appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Our most recent information indicates that the DOI may be working on a plan that could impact the status of the entire lawsuit and may have instructed the USFWS to continue some work in anticipation of  their possible success in overcoming trying to figure out how to respond to the court order and explain their decision process to satisfy the court. Our conservation partners and legal team are closely monitoring any such actions and will mount all available legal and legislative challenges to counter any attempt by the Department of Interior (DOI) to revive the unacceptable land exchange and destructive road.

(photo by Alaska Wilderness League/ Izebemek NWR)

Arctic NWR

The DOI continues to press forward with plans to sell leases for oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. A major national effort resulted in an extensive set of technical comments that were submitted by Trustees for Alaska citing numerous, serious deficiencies in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement issued by the BLM. BLM is in the process of preparing a final EIS, which is expected to be released in August and a decision soon after the close of the 30-day comment period. Since the DEIS was so hastily done and grossly inadequate, without a new DEIS process it is likely that a Final EIS will be insufficient to withstand legal challenges. Lease sales are planned this year.

A related activity is the proposed seismic exploration and a recently-proposed low-altitude aerial survey. These require a plan that would satisfy the Incidental Take Regulations (ITR) regarding denning polar bears and marine mammals. The conservation community is closely monitoring these developments and will take whatever actions are necessary to prevent the undesirable impacts of seismic exploration.

A positive development is the Restore Protections Bill (HR 1146) that would remove the tax bill provision that authorized the sale of leases in the Coastal Plain. The bill was introduced by Representative Jared Huffman and had a record 180 cosponsors. It was reported out of committee and a full House vote is expected soon. Although expected to pass the House, the Senate is not expected to pass it.

Kenai NWR Predator Control Regulations

The proposed Kenai Refuge predator control regulations have not been released, but are expected very soon. The most serious threat to wildlife is the expected regulation that will allow hunting of brown bears over bait.  At a minimum, we will urge the Kenai Refuge to develop a permit process to limit the areas of the Refuge and the number of bears to be taken consistent with mandated management practices and potential threats to the brown bear population. The conservation community is closely monitoring any developments and is prepared to provide the responses necessary to protect the integrity and biological diversity of the Kenai Refuge wildlife.

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2019 Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival Recap

Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge co-sponsored the 27th Annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer, Alaska, May 9-12, 2019. The combination of new Coordinator Mallory Primm and outgoing Coordinator Robbi Mixon was magical! Registration was up by over 100 participants from the previous year and the Keynote speaker, Jennifer Ackerman, sold out for both talks and her workshop. Mark Omascik shared his new book on the Battle of Attu and feature presenters Raymond VanBuskirkand the Tropical Birding Crew led field trips and talks. The stunning artwork by Valisa Higman sold for a record bid, along with over 30 donated 6×6 Alaskan bird art pieces and trips. Much of our merchandise sold out quickly – stop by Islands and Ocean in Homer to see what’s left. Around 100 volunteers donated their time and talents to make this event successful along with the huge contributions of many sponsors and supporters.

Congrats to Mallory on her first year as coordinator, and to Robbi on her last!

We hope you’ll save the date for next year’s event: May 7-10, 2020!

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2019 – May Advocacy Report

Advocacy Update

by David Raskin, Friends Board President

We are pleased to report the exciting developments in the battles to save the Izembek and Arctic Refuges from destructive developments. These and other issues are discussed below.

Izembek NWR

On 29 March 2019, Friends and eight national conservation organizations scored a major victory when the Federal District Court in Anchorage granted the motion for summary judgment in our lawsuit that challenged the legality of the land exchange and road through the heart of the Izembek Wilderness. In her opinion that invalidated the land exchange, Judge Gleason ruled that the process for land exchange authorized by the Secretary of Interior was “arbitrary and capricious.” This decision halted all activity related to the transfer of Refuge land and the construction of a road. We are all extremely indebted to the staff of Trustees for Alaska who did an amazing amount of superb legal work that resulted in this wonderful victory after decades of battling to protect Izembek from this proposed destruction. However, this is not the final event, as the road proponents will continue to develop legal and legislative approaches to undue this rejection of the road. We and our conservation partners and legal team will closely monitor any such actions and will mount all available legal and legislative challenges to counter any attempt by the Department of Interior (DOI) to revive the unacceptable land exchange and destructive road. Check out the Trustees for Alaska press release for more information.

Arctic NWR

The DOI continues to press forward with plans to sell leases for oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. A major national effort resulted in an extensive set of technical comments that were submitted by Trustees for Alaska on behalf of the numerous, serious deficiencies in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement issued by the BLM. Friends also submitted more general comments.  We await the release by BLM of data concerning the number and nature of comments received in response to the national campaign by conservation organizations, including Friends, to encourage their members and the general public to express their concerns about the hurried and flawed process by which the BLM and DOI are attempting to ram through this prosed desecration of the Coastal Plain.

A parallel campaign has been spearheaded by the Gwich’in people of the United States and Canada to prevent the desecration of this Sacred Land and their subsistence culture and way of life. They and scientists and conservationists recently provided powerful testimony on the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, H.R. 1146 introduced by Representatives Huffman and Fitzpatrick to prevent the proposed oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain. In furtherance of these goals, the Alaska Wilderness League lured our longtime refuge champion Desiree Sorenson-Groves from the National Wildlife Refuge Association to head the national coalition to protect and preserve the Arctic Refuge. We welcome her able and energetic leadership will continue to work closely with Desiree and the coalition.


The other dangerous aspect of the proposed oil and gas development is the plan to conduct an extensive and disruptive seismic exploration of the Coastal Plain. In spite of their frantic rush to further this program, those involved were unable to perform the necessary analyses required to obtain authorization for the seismic activity in time for 2018-2019 winter season. The current plan is to do the required analyses and issue findings to support seismic exploration in the coming winter season. The conservation community will closely monitor these developments and take whatever actions are necessary to prevent the undesirable impacts of seismic exploration. Interestingly, a recent New York Times investigation revealed that the closely-held and secret data from the only test well ever drilled on the Coastal Plain found little support for the presence of recoverable oil to justify oil and gas development.

Kenai NWR Predator Control Regulations

The proposed changes to the Kenai Refuge predator control regulations have not been released. Information from the FWS indicates that proposed drafts have gone back and forth between the Refuge, Regional Staff, and DOI regarding the extent to which the undesirable State demands will be incorporated into the published draft of the revised regulations. We anticipate that proposed regulations will soon be published in the Federal Register, and the conservation will closely monitor any development and be prepared to provide the responses necessary to protect the integrity and biological diversity of the Kenai Refuge wildlife.

 

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2019 April Membership Meeting

Please join us on Tuesday, April 16, 2019, 5-6pm, for the Friends membership meeting.

In person: Homer (Alaska Maritime), Fairbanks (Watershed School, 4975 Decathlon), or Soldotna (Kenai NWR) Call in a few minutes before 5pm: (866) 556-2149, code :8169747#

Guest Speaker Presentation: John Morton, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge –

Effects of a Rapidly Warming Climate on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
The Kenai Peninsula is one of the best-studied parts of the state for climate change effects and John Morton, a supervisory biologist for the Kenai Refuge,  has been a key part of that.  Managing the effects of rapid climate change on the 2 million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge will be a challenge to its primary purpose of conserving natural diversity.  In 50 years, the treeline rose 50m in the Kenai Mountains, wetlands decreased 6-11% per decade, the Harding Icefield lost 5% in surface area and 21m in elevation, and available water declined 62%. Late summer canopy fires in spruce are being replaced by spring fires in bluejoint grasslands. Water temperatures in nonglacial streams already exceed physiological thresholds for salmon during July. Bird species are moving north and more than 130 exotic bird species have become established. Climate-envelope models portray a very different future landscape with alpine tundra replaced by forests and lower elevation forests replaced by hardwoods or possibly catastrophic deforestation.  How can the Refuge or any of the refuges manage for biodiversity under this scenario?

Download Presentation

Agenda:

Introductions and Discussion (5 minutes)
  • Introductions: Where do you live? (Tara)
  • New People: Why did you join the call today?
  • Reminder to please mute yourselves when you aren’t talking
Board Activities/Decisions
  • Refuge Projects and Reports (Betty)
Committee Reports (2-5 minutes each): Volunteer Report – (Betty) Membership/Outreach Events: Upcoming events (Tara) Advocacy Updates (David, Dave)
Speaker/Presentation (30-40 minutes) –
  • John Morton, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
  • Topic: “Effects of a Rapidly Warming Climate on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge”
Next Meeting: Tuesday, September 10th, 5-6pm Guest Speaker: TBA
SIX meetings yearly: January, February, March, April, September, October
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2019 – April Advocacy Report

Advocacy Update

by David Raskin, Friends Board President

We are pleased to report the exciting developments in the battles to save the Izembek and Arctic Refuges from destructive developments. These and other issues are discussed below.

Izembek NWR

On 29 March 2019, Friends and eight national conservation organizations scored a major victory when the Federal District Court in Anchorage granted the motion for summary judgment in our lawsuit that challenged the legality of the land exchange and road through the heart of the Izembek Wilderness. In her opinion that invalidated the land exchange, Judge Gleason ruled that the process for land exchange authorized by the Secretary of Interior was “arbitrary and capricious.” This decision halted all activity related to the transfer of Refuge land and the construction of a road. Click on the link to view the press release and court opinion. We are all extremely indebted to the staff of Trustees for Alaska who did an amazing amount of superb legal work that resulted in this wonderful victory after decades of battling to protect Izembek from this proposed destruction. However, this is not the final event, as the road proponents will continue to develop legal and legislative approaches to undue this rejection of the road. We and our conservation partners and legal team will closely monitor any such actions and will mount all available legal and legislative challenges to counter any attempt by the Department of Interior (DOI) to revive the unacceptable land exchange and destructive road.

Arctic NWR

The DOI continues to press forward with plans to sell leases for oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. A major national effort resulted in an extensive set of technical comments that were submitted by Trustees for Alaska on behalf of the numerous, serious deficiencies in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement issued by the BLM. Friends also submitted more general comments [please add link].  We await the release by BLM of data concerning the number and nature of comments received in response to the national campaign by conservation organizations, including Friends, to encourage their members and the general public to express their concerns about the hurried and flawed process by which the BLM and DOI are attempting to ram through this prosed desecration of the Coastal Plain.

A parallel campaign has been spearheaded by the Gwich’in people of the United States and Canada to prevent the desecration of this Sacred Land and their subsistence culture and way of life. They and scientists and conservationists recently provided powerful testimony on the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, H.R. 1146 introduced by Representatives Huffman and Fitzpatrick to prevent the proposed oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain. In furtherance of these goals, the Alaska Wilderness League lured our longtime refuge champion Desiree Sorenson-Groves from the National Wildlife Refuge Association to head the national coalition to protect and preserve the Arctic Refuge. We welcome her able and energetic leadership will continue to work closely with Desiree and the coalition.

The other dangerous aspect of the proposed oil and gas development is the plan to conduct an extensive and disruptive seismic exploration of the Coastal Plain. In spite of their frantic rush to further this program, those involved were unable to perform the necessary analyses required to obtain authorization for the seismic activity in time for 2018-2019 winter season. The current plan is to do the required analyses and issue findings to support seismic exploration in the coming winter season. The conservation community will closely monitor these developments and take whatever actions are necessary to prevent the undesirable impacts of seismic exploration. Interestingly, a recent New York Times investigation revealed that the closely-held and secret data from the only test well ever drilled on the Coastal Plain found little support for the presence of recoverable oil to justify oil and gas development.

Kenai NWR Predator Control Regulations

The proposed changes to the Kenai Refuge predator control regulations have not been released. Information from the FWS indicates that proposed drafts have gone back and forth between the Refuge, Regional Staff, and DOI regarding the extent to which the undesirable State demands will be incorporated into the published draft of the revised regulations. We anticipate that proposed regulations will soon be published in the Federal Register, and the conservation will closely monitor any development and be prepared to provide the responses necessary to protect the integrity and biological diversity of the Kenai Refuge wildlife.

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Fairbanks Art Crowd Loves Refuges – 4th Annual Art in the Arctic

Event report filed by Poppy Benson, Friends Vice President

Art in the Arctic in its 4th year was a big hit once again drawing a younger and diverse crowd of 250 on March 7.  Friends cosponsored this art show showcasing works highlighting the three northern refuges – Arctic, Yukon Flats, and Kanuti.  This year’s theme was “Public Lands – Open to all Americans to Use and Enjoy“.  Various works portrayed hunting, fishing, hiking, wildlife viewing, river-floating, photography, sightseeing and other uses of public lands.  Eight artists were selected to exhibit in the show which will be up for the entire month at the popular coffee house and art gallery, VENUE, located at 514 – 2nd Avenue Fairbanks, Alaska.  Mediums ranged from wood carvings to oil to photography, fabric art, and large-scale watercolors.  It was a lovely evening with great food, good messaging about the refuge system and high visibility for the three refuges.  Featured artists included Lindsay Carron who has completed two Artist in Residence programs at the Arctic Refuge as well as spent time on the Yukon Delta Refuge.  Special Tee shirts were created for the event – one Art in the Arctic Tee and one – Find Your Refuge Tee.  Both are available for sale online and 10% of the proceeds go to Friends.  

Fairbanks Friend Jeff Walters and Homer Friends Poppy Benson and Frank Cloyd were on hand to greet and orient attendees and recruit for Friends.  Several new members signed up at this event and at the Alaska Bird Conference which was also held in Fairbanks earlier in the week.  At the end of the week, plans were afoot for a face to face meeting of Fairbanks Friends during our April 16 monthly membership meeting.  Contact Poppy Benson, poppyb.ak@gmail.com for more details.

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