Our Gifts to the Refuges: Friends in 2023
How did we fulfill our mission of supporting the Alaska National Wildlife Refuges through 1) direct support both financially and with volunteer time, 2) outreach and education and 3) advocacy? The most significant change this year was the return of volunteerism after the pandemic.
Volunteering: In a big comeback from pandemic times, volunteerism surged as more than 50 Friends volunteered on seven different refuges. Two refuges offered projects this year for the first time in memory – Izembek with brant aging and a maintenance project and Yukon Delta with fish weir operations. Berry sampling on Kodiak was new as was the Galbraith Lake bunkhouse assembly at Arctic. The largest numbers of volunteers were needed to support the return of public events. Friends helped at the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, Kenai Riverfest, Kenai Sportsman Show, Run for the Arctic Refuge, Day of the Military Child, Bethel Ducks Unlimited Banquet, Walk for the Wild at Kenai, Kodiak, Alaska Maritime and Yukon Delta refuges, and Art and Conservation Night at the Alaska Bird Conference. Numerous Friends volunteered for events and at the visitor center desks for Kodiak, Kenai and Alaska Maritime refuges. Take a look at the project photos and stories on our volunteer activities page. To make 2024 an even better year, we need more volunteer committee members to help develop opportunities and match members to jobs. Interested? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org
The ever-popular duck banding project at Tetlin was washed out by high water for several of the weeks disappointing those Friends crews. Deputy Refuge Manager Ross Flagen and Friends Volunteer Coordinator Jerry Hupp banding. pc. Dan Musgrove
Funding: About $22,000 was approved by the Board to support refuge projects which includes half of our unrestricted funds plus some designated funds for specific refuges which come from bequests, donation boxes and other sources. Some projects are annual such as interns at Arctic Refuge’s Canning River Research Camp and school bus reimbursements for Kenai Refuge field trips, and some were new such as travel for volunteers to help Izembek Refuge, unpainted duck decoys for a kids art and science project at Tetlin Refuge, travel for an artist to portray the Arctic Refuge and the Gwitch’in elders involved in saving it and a stipend for the specialist to articulate a moose with village children at Innoko Refuge (see companion article). We contributed funds to refuge events including refuge week and Walk for the Wild at Alaska Maritime, Kodiak and Yukon Delta refuges, and a variety of community events. We recently received a $5000 grant from the Sam and Mary Lawrence Foundation’s Sea2Earth Fund to help fund seasonal village interns at Innoko and Kodiak.
We expanded our education program by sponsoring a member trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Eight Friends got to see for themselves why this refuge is so worth fighting for and spent several hours meeting with refuge staff. Last night camp on the Marsh Fork of the Canning River. pc: Poppy Benson
Outreach and Education: Our first ever live meeting in Bethel, the return of watch parties and continued Zoom audience brought an average audience of 100 to our monthly talks on refuge topics. We were able to showcase the staff work of Yukon Delta, Alaska Maritime, Yukon Flats and Selawik refuges and the endangered species program. We learned about spectacled eiders, environmental education in Inupiaq communities, wolf-moose interactions on Yukon Flats, waterfowl work on the Delta and seabird work on the Alaska Maritime. Our March program was one of the most popular on canoeing the Kenai refuge with author Dave Atcheson. Our programs are recorded and you can view those you missed here. Watch parties resumed for our monthly meetings at Kenai and Alaska Maritime in Homer and occasionally in Kodiak.
The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, our largest single project, was back to pre-pandemic programming except for reduced capacity for some talks. More events were offered this year than in 2022, with two keynoters, teen programs, art, boat trips and field events and numerous free talks. Attendees were up overall to 785 registered as were first time attendees.
Advocacy: The threat of gutting Kenai Refuge regulations finally died with another court win which led to the Trump era proposed changes to refuge regulations being dropped. For Izembek, our win in a 2020 lawsuit against the Department of the Interior’s proposed land swap to allow a road through the Izembek Wilderness Area, was rejected by a 3-judge panel late last year on appeal and then was reaffirmed in reconsideration by 11 judges. Whew! As a result, Secretary Haaland withdrew the land exchange that occurred during the Trump Administration. However, a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on a proposed land exchange is still going forward.
For the Arctic Refuge, the draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for an oil and gas program was released in September and you can read Friends comments here. In addition, we signed on to a letter with numerous other conservation groups. The leases sold in the first sale were canceled by Secretary of the Interior Haaland because the first Environmental Impact Statement was found to be deficient. This SEIS is meant to solve those problems but still calls for leasing in every alternative under consideration. In spite of the dismal failure of the first lease sale in 2021, the refuge is required to hold a second lease sale in 2024 by the 2017 Tax Act. I know it is difficult to understand how a Tax Act could require oil and gas leasing on part of a national wildlife refuge so read more about it here.
Refuge funding remains an extremely challenging issue. Plans are moving ahead to complex Kanuti and Yukon Flats refuges, two of the biggest in the nation. This means the staff for one refuge will manage two. Many refuges are very understaffed.
All this reminds us of the quote by noted author and conservationist Rachel Carson, “Conservation is a cause that has no end. There is no point at which we will say our work is finished.” Details and numerous other issues which caught our attention in 2023 are described in our Advocacy Reports here.
In 2010, the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges was named National Friends Group of the Year, by National Wildlife Refuge Association. The National Wildlife Refuge Association’s mission is to conserve America’s wildlife heritage for future generations through strategic programs that protect and enhance the National Wildlife Refuge System and the landscapes beyond its boundaries.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is pictured here with Friends Board and Members in Washington, D.C.