Friends of the Bosque celebrates 20th anniversary

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and the group has accomplished its goal — the San Antonio wildlife preserve is now considered "one of the crown jewels of the refuge system," according to refuge manager Kevin Cobble.

The Friends has grown from four dedicated volunteers with $35 in the treasury to a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with 1,100 members, five paid staffers, a seven-member board and an operating budget of over $425,000.

The idea for a friends group at the Bosque started with Phil Norton.

When he arrived as manager in the 1980s, the refuge was in sad shape. Lack of adequate staffing and funding prevented the refuge from upgrading equipment, improving worn-out farm fields and re-establishing native vegetation. Norton quickly realized he had to think outside the box.

"There's never enough money to hire all the people and do all the work you need to do," Norton said. "To accomplish your goals, you have to look to nontraditional ways."

His first step was to develop a resident volunteer program, soliciting people from around the country who wanted to be more than just docents or camp hosts to spend a few months at the refuge working alongside the paid staff.

"We started recruiting people with wonderful skills and talents," he said. "We put in 20 RV pads. We'd pay the utilities and a little stipend and gave them meaningful work."

By 1993, resident volunteers were driving bulldozers and working in many other vital capacities with refuge staff, and Norton realized that the refuge now had the powerful allies he needed to get the word out about issues affecting its future. Federal regulations prevented refuge employees from lobbying or even publishing a newsletter, but not volunteers.

Norton needed an effective way to organize the refuge's volunteers. It was then he noticed that the most successful refuges had well-organized friends groups advocating for them.

"What I wanted was an advocacy group (for the Bosque)," he said. "Somebody who knew what our needs were, and someone who could speak up. They (Friends) knew the issues, worked alongside the staff, and could go to Washington and walk the halls." Assistant refuge manager at the time Terry Tadano and the staff agreed with Norton, and began working on the paperwork needed to start a nonprofit friends group at the Bosque del Apache.

In February 1993, John Bertrand, an experienced journalist, arrived at the Bosque for a stint as a resident volunteer. Bertrand could write and lay out the advocacy publication Norton envisioned — now all that was lacking was a friends group and an independent source of funding.

About this time, Roy Poole and Dave Rider, newly transferred to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, decided to drive down to see the birds at the refuge. They ran into Norton at the visitor center.

"These two Air Force guys came in and said, 'This is great! What can we do?'" Norton recalled. "We said, 'Organize a friends group.' A few months later, we had an election."

At the Friends' first meeting on Sept. 23, 1993, president Roy Poole, volunteer representative John Bertrand, and member-at-large Dave Rider, along with local school teacher Millie Kinder (secretary/treasurer) and refuge staff representative Gary Stoltz, listed some ambitious and visionary goals for the newly formed Friends of the Bosque del Apache, including operating the refuge's bookstore (with an added gift shop) as a fundraising entity, leading regular refuge tours, publishing a yearly tabloid, writing educational materials, organizing volunteers and taking over the Festival of the Cranes.

The Friends were officially incorporated as a nonprofit organization on Nov. 23, 1993, and the first annual membership meeting was held Jan. 22, 1994. The three-month-old organization added a construction project to its list of goals — a boardwalk over the south marsh wetlands, a project that took seven years to accomplish. They also agreed to collaborate with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish an educational outreach program.

By 2007, Friends volunteers on the refuge outnumbered paid staffers, according to PlentyMag.com.

Current Friends president Lise Spargo points to Chupadera Peak, the highest point on the refuge, and the Lannan Education Annex as the group's two most visible accomplishments.

In 2007, the Friends purchased and then donated the 6,272-foot Chupadera Peak and 140 acres of land surrounding it to the refuge. The Friends spearheaded the fundraising effort, collecting over $135,000 for the purchase, according to group's newsletter. It was the first time a volunteer organization had ever donated land designated as a wilderness area to a refuge, Spargo said. That means no development can ever occur on or around the peak.

The Christina Ann Lannan Education Annex added 2,500 square feet to the refuge's visitor center, including classrooms, storage space, and a new entrance and foyer.

"It was a huge fundraising drive," Spargo said. "All done with fundraising by the Friends."

Chupadera Peak and the education center are the most visible of the Friends' accomplishments, but local educational outreach efforts will probably be the Friends' most important legacy, according to Spargo.

"Our educational program at San Antonio School, from my point of view, that's our legacy," she said. "There are kids who have lived in this valley all their lives, but they have never been to the refuge."

With the sequester continuing across-the-board budget and staff reductions at the refuge, getting through just the next couple of years will be tough, much less the next 20 years, Spargo said.

"We have divided our resources, according to our charter, between supporting research on the refuge and our own educational outreach," she said. "Support for research has always included some support to infrastructure, but with refuge staff and budget declines, their needs are greater and more basic. The sequester will continued to erode their operating budget, but the refuge hasn't shrunk and the bird population isn't decreasing."

Spargo said the Friends will work with refuge staff to meet the most pressing needs.

Friends of the Bosque executive director Leigh Ann Vradenburg has come up with a wish list of seven major capital projects, ranging from installing more bird-friendly windows at the Visitor Center to purchasing six $40,000 state-of-the-art Langemann water control gates to regulate and monitor irrigation.

"I'm excited about the future, she said. "I think everything is going up from here. We're positioned to make a difference at the refuge."

Former Festival of the Cranes coordinator Robyn Harrison and Friends volunteer John Bertrand contributed to this report.