They Lay the Welcome MAT on Our National Wildlife Refuges

RonCole copyRon Cole is the Refuge Association’s Conservation Programs Western Programs Manager. Mr. Cole is working on the Refuge Association’s sagebrush steppe conservation initiatives, with special focus in the Greater Hart-Sheldon region of southeast Oregon and northern Nevada. Ron recently retired after over 31 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working in the National Wildlife Refuge System. His experience includes 7 years as a wildlife biologist and 25 years as a refuge manager and refuge supervisor, most recently at the Klamath Basin Refuge Complex.

You’ve been traveling quite a distance and you finally see that welcoming Blue Goose sign, indicating you have arrived at your National Wildlife Refuge destination. Behind the sign, a flock of geese gently parachutes into a wetland. You and the geese share something in common. This refuge, like hundreds more across the country, provides sanctuary to you both.

You drive the well maintained tour route that leads to a comfortable walkway guiding you to a well-positioned observation deck overlooking a wetland full of birds behind the sign with the blue goose. The geese you watched land earlier are there now, vocal, splashing and content.

They and other fish and wildlife are here because all that they need is here; water, wetlands, trees, shrubs, grains and seeds, prey, cover, sanctuary. It is why they come. It is why they stay. How the habitat got here or who built and maintains it matters not to wild things. What matters is only that this place is here. It is instinctual to come and wild things compulsively obey their instincts.

You come here because you enjoy the wildlife. But have you ever wondered who builds and maintains what it takes to make your visit and that of your winged friends possible? Who builds the roads, canals, water control structures, observation decks, informative signs, visitor centers, walking paths, clean restrooms, benches to relax on, lights that work, and places to properly recycle and dispose of your trash? Someone must be out there every day, managing water levels, grading roads, cleaning restrooms, preparing fields for planting, clearing invasive plants, and making this place welcoming for all – but who?

They are the men and women of the Wage Grade Workforce of our National Wildlife Refuges and Fish Hatcheries, that’s who.

Crew members from L to R in nomination poster photo: Gabriel Martinez - San Luis Valley; Erik Smolik - San Luis Valley; Dewane Mosher - San Luis Valley; Ron Swanson - Seedskadee; Gene Smith - Seedskadee; Skip Palmer - Lee Metcalf | Ron Cole
Crew members from L to R in nomination poster photo: Gabriel Martinez – San Luis Valley; Erik Smolik – San Luis Valley; Dewane Mosher – San Luis Valley; Ron Swanson – Seedskadee; Gene Smith – Seedskadee; Skip Palmer – Lee Metcalf | Ron Cole

Recently, Region 6, the Mountain Prairie Region, held a Wage Grade Workshop at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. This is the first time the region had put together a workshop like this in more than 3 years. I had the good fortune to attend this workshop for a couple of days while visiting Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. About 50-plus men and women from wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries around the region gathered for a week to learn, train, and share experiences.

A highlight of the workshop was nominating some of the important projects that Wage Grade crews had accomplished the past year to be selected for the “Golden Hammer” Award. The nominees were selected because they best exemplified problem solving, innovation, teamwork, safety and mission goals.

The nominees ranged from sustained, individual performances throughout the course of the entire year, to specific projects such as retrofitting equipment to kill invasive plants, replacing large culverts and bridges, or wetland restoration projects as part of the Services Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. All projects nominated showed exceptional teamwork between Fish and Wildlife Service programs.

All of the nominees were winners, but only one got to bring home the Golden Hammer. The 2015 winner of the Golden Hammer Award was the crew that worked on the Maintenance Action Team (MAT) at the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex. MAT teams are usually made up of several individuals, often from different field stations that combine their talents and expertise to accomplish large, difficult and complex projects.

This MAT replaced a failing crossing with a new structure in October and November of 2014. Click here to read more about the project.

Really though, how difficult can this work be?  When I was a young man, I worked in our family heavy equipment business. I tried my hand at heavy equipment operation.  There is a reason I became a wildlife biologist and a refuge manager. Operating heavy equipment to safely and efficiently meet the standards required is not easy. Being able to operate equipment, be a plumber, a field engineer, electrician, fabricating welder, and do it all with a passion for natural resource conservation takes a very special individual indeed.

As a refuge employee for over 30 years, I quickly grew to understand who were the most indispensable individuals on a refuge. When the government shutdown occurred a few years back, they identified refuge managers as “mission critical”, but any manager worth their salt knew who the most critical were. The Wage Grade employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service rarely get the thanks or recognition they so richly deserve. They don’t speak out often, nor have a platform from which to speak very loudly when they do. Their work does the talking for them.

And their work needs to be funded. In fiscal year 2016, the National Wildlife Refuge Association requests Congress provide a minimum of $508.2 million for the National Wildlife Refuge System Operations and Maintenance accounts. Much of the work the Wage Grade workforce accomplishes is funded through the O&M budget.

So, the next time you are visiting a wildlife refuge and you see an employee on a tractor, or on a piece of heavy equipment, or cleaning up a restroom, you might have a better understanding of how important and how talented they really are. They probably have on a pair of coveralls, might have some sweat on their brow and dirt on their hands. Don’t be shy, go up and greet them. Most likely they know as much about how the refuge works as anyone else in a refuge uniform. And say thanks. If the blue goose on the sign could speak, that’s what it would do.

Thanks to all the dedicated Wage Grade employees who help make our nation’s wildlife refuges and hatcheries work for fish, wildlife and you every day.



Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2015/05/they-lay-the-welcome-mat-on-our-national-wildlife-refuges/

1 comment

  1. Steven Lewis (Humboldt Bay NWR) says:

    Nice article Ron Thanks. I have distributed it through Region’s 1 & 8.

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