Looking Back: Molly Brown, Refuge Volunteer, Advocate and Friend

Now in her 27th year serving as President of the Friends of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, one of the first groups of its kind, Molly Brown looks back on a career centered upon balancing the needs of wildlife with the wants of people.

Known for testifying before Congress every year from 1989 to 2010 in search of land acquisition funding for Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and for raising over $24 million towards that end, Brown began her career in environmental advocacy as a volunteer more than 27 years ago. As a former 1st-grade schoolteacher, Brown understood that communication and community engagement are keys to the teaching process, and brought that experience to her early years at Back Bay.

“Keeping the local community interested is the key to getting anything done. People have to buy into the refuge’s mission,” Brown said. “The more people we can get to put their feet on a refuge, the better it is for the cause.”

Brown's birth announcement for new eagle chicks delighted all who saw it | Molly Brown
Brown’s birth announcement for new eagle chicks delighted all who saw it | Molly Brown

In 1988, Molly Brown was instrumental in organizing the Friends of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge’s first meeting, which saw 25-30 participants. Primarily focused on land acquisition, Brown made her first trip to Congress the following year to lobby for expansion funding. With only her charisma and passion to guide her, she successfully secured $2 million for the refuge, and a reinvigoration of Back Bay that still continues today had begun.

“You make a lot of enemies fighting for your beliefs. It takes a strong personality and a strong team to come out on top,” Brown said.

The National Wildlife Refuge Association acknowledged seven years of hard work when Brown earned recognition as Volunteer of the Year in 1995. The following year, she was approached with an offer to join the Refuge Association Board of Directors, on which she served faithfully for upwards of 15 years. During that time, Brown encouraged the burgeoning “Friends Movement” that sought to give other refuges what her group had so successfully brought to Back Bay.

In 1997, the Refuge Association sponsored the first meeting of Friends group leaders and Fish and Wildlife Service staff in Virginia Beach, VA. Brown and others created a handbook, “Taking Flight,” that established guidelines to highlight refuge needs and how affiliated groups could address them, and later instituted training programs and seminars for refuge staff and wildlife advocates.

When Molly Brown first arrived on the Board of Directors, she noticed that most of the Refuge Association’s members were insiders – retired refuge managers, and employees of the US Fish and Wildlife Service or Department of the Interior.

“It was an honor to learn from them about how the refuge system worked,” Brown said. “I was still learning at the time, and I’m still learning even today.”

Today, Brown recognizes that those on the board are largely younger, and with that, excitement for the cause of conservation remains fresh. By engaging a younger generation of advocates, she says, the Refuge Association can stay on top of new technologies, which will aid in community organization and fund-raising. Brown attributes the organization’s success in recent years to a “personal touch” – the friendships, common interests, and teamwork that is built into the very organization.

Molly Brown's work has resulted in a revival of bald eagles at Back Bay NWR | Bruce Hallman, USFWS
Molly Brown’s work has resulted in a revival of bald eagles at Back Bay NWR | Bruce Hallman, USFWS

Brown says she needs to look no further than Back Bay Refuge to see the fruits of her career – in her favorite animal, the bald eagle. Before her involvement, no eagles had nested near Virginia Beach in almost 40 years. Just a year after the refuge’s first expansion, paid for by Brown’s pleas to Congress, a pair of eagles settled a nest on federal grounds. Today, with all of its expansions, pairs of eagles can be found on Back Bay throughout the year. After the first eagle chick was hatched on the refuge, Brown sent an excited birth announcement to commemorate the occasion, an affirmation of a career well spent.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2015/07/looking-back-molly-brown-refuge-volunteer-advocate-and-friend/

1 comment

  1. Margie Klein says:

    I’m so proud to have known Molly all of these 27 years and watched her work so hard and with such passion for Back Bay Natinal Wildlife Refuge. Molly persevered under some tough opposition when the refuge was in the process of trying to expand and she was respectful and gracious the whole time. Cheers to Molly Brown!

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