On Wildlife Refuges
I’m reflecting on the value of wildlife refuges, now that a wildlife refuge is prominent in the news. It seems like an odd place to be at the center of political controversy—a bird sanctuary in a remote corner of Oregon. Others have written about the situation with both astuteness and hilarity, but what I’m reflecting on is refuges themselves.
On the surface of things, the value of wildlife refuges seems incontrovertible, for they preserve pockets of land where the wild creatures and plants that are iconic to our concept of the North American landscape can thrive in a balanced state, free—to an extent—from human interference. The system of refuges, parks, and monuments begun by Teddy Roosevelt in the early 20th century was set up to preserve the unique features of American geography, including wildlife and wildlife habitat, for future generations. There are wildlife refuges in every state in a loose patchwork of green spaces that support the plants and animals of each region, and provide refuge for us humans, as well, from the busy cluttered lives we live in proximity to each other.
Living on a ridge with a hundred-and-seventy-mile view from my deck to the Alaska Range, in a place where moose leave their hoof prints in my frozen garden as they snack their way through the neighborhood, and where foxes sun themselves by the road in summer, it might be easy to take sharing outdoor space with wildlife for granted, but even here in the North in the time I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the gradual encroaching of houses, people, snow machines, trucks, dogs, and all the human trappings that come with building up a place. The hill above us and the unsellably steep lots on the roads around us give us a sense of living with wildlife, but I won’t kid myself that it’s not a fragile sense of the wild.
Thus, wildlife refuges. And I’ve been thinking of one in particular, Laguna Atascosa refuge near Harlingen, Texas, where I had the opportunity to volunteer more than twenty years ago. Alaska was in an economic downturn, and my job running literary programs at the Arts Association had vanished, so I sold all the things that I wasn’t sentimental about and, along with my friend Dave, took off traveling across country to see family and head to Mexico. We traveled in a ‘69 Ford van which was roomy enough for us to sleep in, cook in, keep books in, and haul along enough tools that we could stop by the road and tinker the van back to life, if needed,
Dave was and still is a birder, and I learned to watch and listen for the subtle nuances of bird presence—a tremble of branch, the dim flash of feathers, the subtle variations of bird call. We headed through Texas, stopping at Padre Island for a day or two, then continuing south. At some point along the way, we realized that the van could surprise us with needed repairs at any time, and neither of us spoke reliable Spanish, so we decided to tour the Rio Grande valley north of the border, hopping from refuge to refuge, searching for birds for Dave’s life list.
Laguna Atascosa is across Laguna Madre–an inland waterway–from South Padre Island. It’s sheltered by Padre’s barrier island from the ocean and is part wetland, part desert. When we were there, in the winter of 1988, the refuge was still relatively new, and was in the process of inventorying wildlife and rebuilding wild areas that had been devastated by years of prior use. The first night we were there, we parked on a point overlooking the bay and woke to the sun rising over the water, ducks and gulls lifting into the morning. When we stopped at the visitors’ center, we learned that the refuge staff were eager for volunteers. We offered what we could: I could write and edit; Dave, with his chemistry degree, took water samples and tested them. We were given a place to park the van, and stayed for a month.
What I learned about wildlife refuges: they are run by dedicated people who love the land and plants and animals that they work to preserve. While some of the people we met were long-time Fish and Wildlife employees, many were local, working at the jobs it took to manage an area 100,000 acres large. Everyone who worked there slipped easily between English and Spanish, and they welcomed us there. I sat in their library, reading guides to fish of the region and put together fish descriptions from photos and technical information. I wrote a lot about fish teeth and diet, about dorsal fins, spots, eye color and shape and other details I’ve long forgotten. From time to time, we’d be invited on the morning bird count, driving out with our morning coffee and tea and binoculars to watch for ducks, hawks, and shore birds and the occasional flamingo or egret. Once, I was invited to go along with the woman doing ocelot research to watch the female ocelot she was tracking cross the road at night. It slipped out of the tall grass along the road, saw the lights of our truck—they reflected in her eyes—and turned around and slipped back into the grass.
That was so long ago, but what I carry with me from that time is a memory of spaciousness and the generosity of everyone there, both wild and “civilized.” At its best, this is what the refuge system does—by preserving something elemental in the land, plants, and creatures, it preserves something elemental in us all and generously offers it back to us when we have reached the point of world-weariness that I had that year. Who does this land belong to? To all of us, and those who manage the refuges do so in our name and on our behalf. In the case of both Laguna Atascosa and the Malheur Refuge, on the north-south flyway of the birds who live in Alaska for the summers and Mexico for winters—it belongs to the birds and other animals who spend part of their lifecycle there and to all of us who need to know those birds will return to our spots on the flyway year after year.
So, are refuges a political space, a symbol of some form of tyranny? Perhaps the “tyranny” of our better natures to see the value in what exists in the landscape when left to its own devices, not trammeled by humans, their machines, their construction, their squabbles. Perhaps the “tyranny” of our collective will—or the middle ground of that will—to establish such places and ensure that they continue to exist—and our collective agreement to abide by that collective will. I can only hope that the sense of spaciousness, of connection, of peace that I feel when I remember Laguna Atascosa and every other similarly wild pocket of land I’ve visited will affect those who are spending their January in the refuge in Oregon now and that they will be transformed by it. The Paiute know this–the refuge is a sacred space. Perhaps those “occupying” the refuge will see something there that reminds them of this: we don’t ever “own” land, but are stewards of it with a responsibility to the future to leave it better than we found it.