Free Nisqually lecture series kicks off amid fears of refuge budget cuts

The Olympian

Summer visitors to the Nisqually National Wildlife refuge enjoy panoramic views of the Nisqually Delta, intimate encounters with visiting waterfowl and, for the last 30 years, the annual Summer Lecture Series, free weekly lectures by prominent guest speakers on a wide range of environmental topics.

The goal of the series is to “light a little fire in folks to want to know more about a variety of subjects that affect the natural world,” according to Jennifer Cutillo, visitor services manager for the refuge.

But this summer, the excitement about the well-loved lecture series is undercut by a sense of worry across the Department of the Interior, which faces an approximately 13 percent cut under President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget.

While the budget is not final — the president proposes a budget but funding levels are ultimately decided by congress — the proposed cuts have sparked concern.

As part of the Fish and Wildlife Service, a bureau of the Department of the Interior, the National Wildlife Refuge System would lose a significant amount of federal funding if the budget developed by congress reflects the administration’s proposed cuts, possibly forcing refuges across the country to close or cut down on programs.

“The aspirational dreams for an invigorated Refuge System were snuffed with today’s budget proposal,” said Geoffrey Haskett, acting president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, in a statement the day Trump’s budget was released. “Today’s proposal would close refuges and bar public use to the very people it was designed to serve.”

But supporters of the budget, including Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Virginia Johnson, a new hire during the Trump administration, say that the decrease in funding represents a more focused budget aimed at eliminating inefficiencies.

According to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the proposed budget “saves taxpayers by focusing program spending, shrinking bureaucracy, and empowering the front lines."

Some U.S. senators have indicated that they will oppose many of the budget proposals, including ranking member of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Maria Cantwell, D-Washington.

“Suffice it to say, this budget would pump the brakes on the booming outdoor recreation economy,” Cantwell said in a Senate hearing on the proposed cuts.

But it’s uncertain how the proposed budget could impact the Nisqually refuge.

Despite assistance from The Friends of Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, which primarily funds educational programming and special events, the bulk of the refuge’s funding comes from the Department of the Interior. If the proposed budget is realized, the refuge would assess its priorities to determine which of its programs needed to be cut back.

“Any time there are changes in our budget, which means also changes in the amount of money that we have to manage the refuges, there’s a concern,” said Glynnis Nakai, refuge manager at Nisqually. “We can only plan for it and prepare and then find out when the budget is passed what we can and can’t do.”

The refuge benefits from programs that would be drastically cut or eliminated should the 2018 budget reflect the president’s proposals.

Trump’s proposed budget entirely eliminates funding for the Youth Conservation Corps, which employs teens to do conservation work on public lands. At Nisqually, participants in the corps learn about tribal treaty rights, habitat conservation and protecting Puget Sound.

“It’s just a good way to put some young people to work,” said state Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia.

Two AmeriCorps workers serve as education coordinators for the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge as well as the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. Under the proposed budget, the federal agency that manages AmeriCorps would be eliminated.

The volunteer program also could see cuts as refuge staff who run volunteer programs are refocused on “mission critical programs,” according to a press release by the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge has more than 200 volunteers that help run the Norm Dicks Visitor Center, maintain the refuge and run special events like the lecture series.

“They don’t seem to put much respect in our natural resources,” Sen. Hunt said of the Trump administration. “We’ve put a lot of time and money in that refuge over the years.”

In 2009, the refuge was the site of the Pacific Northwest’s largest estuary restoration project, which removed dikes over several years to reconnect hundreds of wetland acres with the Puget Sound at a total cost of about $12 million.

With 85 percent of Puget Sound’s estuaries destroyed by development, the protected land serves as vital habitat for migrating birds.

“It‘s really important that we have wild places for birds to migrate through, especially along the coast,” said naturalist Leigh Calvez, a New York Times bestselling author featured in the lecture series. “They need stopping points along the way — it’s really important for their entire lifestyle.”

The refuge also serves as an educational resource and site for wildlife viewing, hunting and fishing for about 200,000 visitors per year.

“People need nature,” Calvez said. “They need places where they can get out into the wild.”

One recent visitor was Isabella Oramas, 7, of Olympia. Her favorite part of the refuge was seeing a swarm of yellow butterflies near the boardwalk that juts out into freshwater wetlands.

“There were, like, a hundred,” Oramas said.

Calvez remains optimistic that public lands can continue to thrive, with or without government support.

“If they close a national park, are we going to take that sitting down? Or are we going to find people to run it?” Calvez asked. “It’s our land.”

This year’s lecture series kicks off Wednesday.

“I’m excited about all of them — they all look great,” said Art Pavey, who has volunteered at the refuge since 1993. “By all means, if you’re thinking about it, it’s worth it.”

Lecture series

The 30th Annual Summer Lecture Series at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesdays in the Norm Dicks Visitor Center auditorium in July and August. Admission is free — even the refuge entrance fee is waived — but the auditorium seats just 100 people on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors open at 6 p.m.

July 5: “A Tale of Two Puffins,” by Peter Hodum, associate professor of biology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

July 12: “Tree Kangaroos, Communities, and Conservation: Reaching across the Pacific Rim to save wildlife,” by Lisa Dabek, director of the Papua New Guinea Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

July 19: “Native People & Cedar — The Tree of Life,” by Frances V. Rains, a professor at The Evergreen State College

July 26: “The Hidden Lives of Owls,” by Leigh Calvez, author of the New York Times bestselling book “The Hidden Lives of Owls: The Science and Spirit of Nature’s Most Elusive Birds.”

Aug. 2: “For Heaven’s Sake Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation” by Claudia Supensky, director/founder of the nonprofit animal rescue group, and David Supensky, project manager with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife

Aug. 9: “Global Ocean — Human Culture: Past, Present and Future,” by John R. Delaney, professor of oceanography at the University of Washington.

Aug. 16: “Wet and Wild! Marine Wildlife Medicine in the Pacific Northwest,” by Lesanna L Lahner, executive director and veterinarian of Sealife Response + Rehab + Research (SR3)

Aug. 23: “The Cocktail That Kills Coho: Stormwater Runoff Problems and Solutions,” by Jenifer McIntyre, assistant professor of aquatic toxicology at Washington State University in Puyallup

More information about the speaker lineup can be found at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Billy_Frank_Jr._Nisqually/Visit/Visitor_Activities/2017_Summer_Lecture_Series.html.