MEETING THE PUBLIC, SACRAMENTO STYLE

[This is Chapter Eleven out of my 2017 book, "Government Biologist; With the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century" (Gresham, Oregon: Symbios Books), that details my 35-year career as a wildlife biologist and administrator. If you'd like to read more, contact me and I'll send you a free PDF of the entire book.]

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     When I worked at the Sacramento Refuge as a student trainee, I saw very little of "the public."  We had occasional visitors in the summer - most of them travelers along Highway 99, who saw the "Blue Goose" sign, and drove in to look around. A dry 90-degree July day, with mosquitoes out in force and (in the minds of the refuge staff, anyway) almost no wildlife, didn't seem like the best time to drive the refuge visitors' route. Still, those who took the time often came back thrilled with the sight of some avocets, a couple mallards, and a jackrabbit or two. Even that early in my career, I got and retained the message that "almost no wildlife" is clearly in the eye of the beholder.

   We had very little crime or "bad behavior" on the refuges in the 1960s. Most of our encounters with the public that weren't directly related to wildlife watching or public hunting involved people in areas where they weren't supposed to be. Occasionally, the trespass was for illegal actions (such as frogging, a use not permitted on the refuge); usually, it was just the result of poor judgment. This is the way I wrote up one January incident in the local newspaper.

   "Recent storms have created many mud puddles on the refuge, but the graveled 'visitor route' is still open and passable. This is not true of other roads in the area, and we advise you to stay strictly on the main route. An incident that occurred last Friday evening should help show the wisdom of this suggestion.

  "Just before dark, I discovered a new Chevrolet sedan mired deep in the mud about four miles from refuge headquarters. The car was empty and locked up, but the situation was easy to recreate. The driver had strayed a considerable distance from the safety of the Visitor Route on rain-soaked alkali dikes. He was lucky for awhile because the sedan was relatively light and traveled easily across some of the muddy stretches. His luck eventually gave out when he hit an extremely soft spot, and his only alternative was to walk for help.

   "It was already getting dark when I left the mired car and went in search of its occupants. Before long, I saw a pickup truck ahead of me. It also was off the graveled road on a soft alkali dike, and it also was stuck. With it, I found the occupants of both the truck and the car. The owner of the car had walked out to Lambertville (about five miles) for help, had misjudged the location of his mired car, and had guided the rescuers along another soft dike. Now the rescue vehicle was in need of rescue, also!

   "A very cold, very muddy hour and a half later, we had both car and truck back on solid ground. I might also add that it was quite dark by this time, and well past all our suppertimes."

*   *   *

   One public encounter that I still remember vividly had to do with a phone call I received. The man on the line said, "This is Jon Hall." I said, "Hello, Mr. Hall." He obviously expected a greater response: "This is Jon Hall - from Hollywood!" It took a few more seconds for me to process that, then I blurted out, "Oh, you mean 'Ramar of the Jungle'!"

   Mr. Hall (born Charles F. Locher) probably didn't like to be best remembered for his lead role in the 1950s "Jungle Jim"-type TV drama. He had appeared in maybe two dozen (mostly less than memorable) movies between 1935 and 1959. Still, I suspect there were a lot of people like me who, if they hadn't watched "Ramar" as a kid, wouldn't have known him at all. The reason he was calling the refuge was that he had established a film library in the Los Angeles area, and wanted to include some stock footage of wildlife. He just wanted to come to the refuge and shoot a little film. It was a commercial venture of sorts, but since he wasn't asking to do anything that any visitor couldn't do, I told him to come on up.

   He arrived at the refuge in a Cadillac, with his wife, the actress Raquel Torres, in a nice fur coat. I directed him to the Visitor Route. He drove out and parked by the side of the road, then walked for several hours, filming the flights of ducks and geese. All the time he was photographing, his wife sat alone in the car, just waiting. As I recall, it wasn't bitterly cold, but it was late fall; also, the refuge never completely ran out of mosquitoes, even in the dead of winter. It must have been uncomfortable, but I guess she did just fine. After Mr. Hall had finished his photo shoot, our maintenance foreman, Johnnie Johnson, invited them to dinner, an invitation they accepted.

*   *   *

   More conventional public use came in the forms of wildlife watching and hunting. In the 1960s, very few refuges did anything to encourage the former activity. Most refuges had a printed leaflet with some basic information on the area, and a map showing the parts open to visitors. Quite a few had printed bird lists, although some were pretty primitive. Amenities like information signs, interpretive displays, and public rest rooms were scarce. I don't think any refuge in the Western states had anyone actually assigned to work with visitors; questions were answered and directions given by whoever was in the office at the time. As you might imagine, the quality of the responses varied.

   Despite the lack of a welcome mat, many people found the refuges, and made use of the limited access and facilities. Word of mouth knowledge of the good wildlife viewing spots was helped along by the appearance of the first "bird finding" guides, such as the Olin Sewall Pettingill guides first published in 1952 (Eastern states) and 1953 (Western locations). Many national wildlife refuges were included. (Interestingly, Minidoka Refuge - with almost no access for birding - had a better write-up than Sacramento Refuge.)

   In 1939, two years after its establishment, Sacramento Refuge hosted 443 visitors. By 1953, the number had grown to almost 1,500. Probably, more people were finding the refuge because of the erection of a big "Blue Goose" sign just off busy Highway 99, and by the creation of a "display pool" just inside the refuge entrance. (I don't know how the display pool was managed in the 1950s. in my time, it held a variety of crippled [mainly from shooting] ducks, geese, and swans, plus whatever wild visitors chose to land on its surface. It wasn't much of an "attraction.")

   In 1965, wildlife viewers to Sacramento Refuge were estimated at 5,500. While visits weren't being encouraged, some steps had been taken to accommodate those who found their way. The Visitor Route was being well-maintained, and a meeting room had been added to the refuge office for indoor presentations. (Groups had previously been entertained - along with the mosquitoes - in one of the garage bays.) Also, public restrooms were available for the first time. (The other three refuges had no specific facilities, but certain areas were open for wildlife watching.)

   I really enjoyed meeting with the wildlife watchers and birders who came to the refuge, and Manager Morgan was happy to let me handle that aspect of refuge management. He really didn't understand the birding groups, a situation that wasn't improved when one morning he woke up to find several people with binoculars staring in his bedroom window. Indeed, they did have their binoculars trained on the house, but the attraction wasn't the sleeping Morgans, but a long-eared owl perched in a tree just outside their bedroom window. I quickly gathered up the stray birders, and got them going on a guided tour around the Visitor Route.

   The big attraction fall through spring was, of course, the great flocks of ducks and geese, but that wasn't all the tour route had to offer. American bitterns, usually solitary marsh birds, congregated on the refuge in winter, and one after another would fly up from the marsh edges as visitors approached. Red foxes, introduced in the Valley many years before, would occasionally be seen. Burrowing owls were perhaps the favorite sighting; one pair lived in a hole in the center of the road, and visitors who knew what was coming would stop their cars in time to see the head of one of the little owls poke up through the gravel in front of them. The owls seldom flew, and always seemed ready to present themselves anew to the next vehicles that came along.

   Most of the organized groups came on the weekends. Sally, an old hand with bird-watchers and bird tours dating from her own youth, would often come along with two-year old Shawn and brand-new baby Sara (born at Willows in August 1965). Sally could answer many of the questions about the refuge and about bird identification, and we found that people would sometimes ask her questions that they didn't want to bother The Biologist with. If she didn't know the answer, she would get the word to me, and I'd make it a discussion topic for the group.

 

Sally (with baby Sara) entertaining a group of Bay Area birders

   You might think that little children on a birding trip would be unwelcome. I don't think anyone ever complained, and the kids never gave any reason for complaints. Sometimes, they were a definite asset, helping to loosen up the group and increasing the fun. I saved one letter from a couple who had been on one of our trips; they had actually written to Sally's folks, not to us. A few excerpts: "Those children are wonderful! As for sweet little Sara, she folded up in her mother's arms and slept! My arms ached at the thought but your daughter seemed to take it as a matter of course. Sandy spelled her and between the two of them they gave us a wonderful day... Little Shawn was precious. Never one moment of trouble was he. He was the best welcoming committee you ever saw. Quietly in his own sweet way he got around to each of us with that dazzling smile of his... What really convulsed me was when during the inevitable discussion of what bird is it? Is it this? Or that? Little Shawn said sagely, 'It might be one of the grebes!' I said to your daughter, 'You two have a good life.' 'Don't think we don't know it,' she said." 

*   *   *

   Unfortunately, not all wildlife watchers are created equal, and a few trips were not much fun. I wrote the following section in 1965, immediately following a close encounter of the less pleasant kind.

   "Is there anything of interest to see on the refuge right now?"

   I'm afraid I stared somewhat more than was polite at the one who asked the question. Here we were, near the center of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge on a crisp November day, and it seemed to me that everything was interesting. In the 10,000 acres surrounding us, there were on that day approximately 600,000 ducks and 100,000 geese. Pintails sat on the pools in such great rafts that you couldn't see the water beneath them, while snow geese crowded our rice fields from corner to corner. "Wigeon Bend" was alive with the colorful and noisy baldpates that gave the spot its name. There were black-crowned night herons and American bitterns in every bulrush tangle, and the uplands were alive with horned larks, white-crowned sparrows, and water pipits. Small wonder, I think, that I was taken somewhat aback by the question!

   "Well," I began, not really knowing which way to progress, "We've had a pair of white-tailed kites around, recently..."

   "No," he interrupted, "We've seen those, already. What about European wigeon, blue geese, or common teal?"

   If those were the terms we were measuring by, then no, there wasn't anything of interest on the refuge!

   By the time I was rid of this man and his group, I was in a pretty sour mood. For a couple hours, we had toured the marsh. I had called out each new surprise: three ring-necked ducks among the thousands of wigeon, a pair of gadwall off in a side slough, and a loggerhead shrike unsuccessfully dive-bombing sparrows in a willow thicket. Sometimes there had been nodded heads, a quick thumbing through a field guide, or a hasty glance through mostly unused binoculars. Usually, however, the reaction was a glance at a check-list, followed occasionally by a triumphant stab with a pencil if I hit upon a "new record." I soon realized that these people were not really out to enjoy wildlife. They were playing a game of "scavenger hunt," going from place to place, hoping to add a few more pencil marks on their check-lists. Bird watchers, indeed!

*   *   *

 

Was there anything "interesting" on the Refuge?

 

I spent most of that afternoon and evening fuming about this group of so-called nature enthusiasts. Not only did I feel that they had wasted my morning, but I was indignant that they had hardly given My Refuge a glance the whole time they were there. In retrospect, they  probably upset me only because it was my first encounter with "bird listers." Later, particularly during my years working with the California condor and other endangered birds, I got to know the breed very well. Actually, there were at least two "races" of listers. One is the kind described above, who seem to have little interest in the birds beyond saying that they saw them - or, even that they were with somebody who saw them. I don't know if I understand the second kind any better, but I have found them more endearing. They are listers, for sure, but listers with a flair. They may thoroughly enjoy wildlife at other times; like me, they may study wildlife for a living; but in their role of bird lister, they have one goal: to see all the bird species found in the United States. They will drop anything they are doing to rush across the country to see some foreign bird seldom - or never before - seen here. They plan trips that, hopefully, will add certain species to their list. Their timing is precise. I remember one call - a fairly typical one - I received from a birder friend in Florida. (If I recall correctly, he held the record for awhile of having seen more U. S. species than anybody else.) He was flying overnight from Florida to Los Angeles, where he had arranged for someone to take him to a location where a spotted owl sighting was pretty much a "sure thing." He thought he could be finished there by late morning, after which he would drive north into California condor country. He hoped I could tell him the best location to see a condor. It had to be that afternoon, because he was scheduled to be in Monterey the next morning for a boat trip to observe several pelagic species he did not yet have on his list. He planned to fly back to Florida that evening. (I don't remember how he did on that particular trip, but I'm pretty sure he achieved at least part of his objective.)

*   *   *

   As I said above, Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1960s wasn't encouraging wildlife watchers, and was doing very little to accommodate those who came unannounced. We were giving talks and leading refuge tours when requested, but there were a lot of people we weren't reaching, at all. I had some ideas to both increase and improve the refuge image locally, and to enhance the refuge experience for visitors. With the blessing of Manager Baine Cater, I started a weekly news column, "On the Refuge," which ran in the Willows Daily Journal for two years. In it, I covered anything that might be of interest locally: how many waterfowl were in the area, hunting regulations and hunting success, rare wildlife observations, special visitors, what the  refuge crews were doing, personnel changes, etc. (I received a letter from the Director of Fish and Wildlife Service, commending me for one article I wrote, in which I attempted to explain why hunting regulations had to be so "complicated.") Additionally, I was sending out my bi-weekly summaries of waterfowl numbers, hunting success, and refuge visitors to a dozen or so Northern California newspapers.

   After Baine transferred and was replaced by Bun Morgan, I proposed to Bun that we set up a simple self-guiding system for the Visitor Route. I think the idea was new for Federal refuges, but had long been used in National Parks and various state and local facilities. We installed numbered posts along the road, and I prepared a leaflet with a map and paragraphs to match the post numbers. The paragraphs explained what was growing in the nearby field, what wildlife one was likely to see at that point, why the marshes were managed the way the were, etc. I think we had plans to change the leaflets seasonally, to reflect the current conditions, but I may have transferred from the refuge before that happened. I don't recall that we got any particular feedback from visitors, but at least we had done something to interpret the area.

*   *   *

   Colusa and Sutter refuges had been open to waterfowl hunting for many years, and hunting was added at Delevan soon after it was acquired. I was sorry to learn that Sacramento Refuge was to become a hunting area in the fall of 1964. I didn't have any strong objections to hunting, but Sacramento was the only area (Federal or State) in the entire Central Valley that truly was a refuge. I had an idea that having the entire area as sanctuary actually improved hunting locally, by maintaining a reservoir of birds in the vicinity. Mostly, however, I just liked the idea of having a place for people to see vast numbers of waterfowl undisturbed by nearby shooting. What I preferred didn't matter, because the decision to open the area was not one made by the refuge staff. It was part of the Fish and Wildlife Service philosophy of encouraging hunting.

   I said I had no personal objections to hunting, but I've never been a fan of the procedures adopted for waterfowl hunting on the Valley refuges. The hunts were managed by the California Department of Fish and Game, from the issuing  of permits to staffing the check stations on the refuges. Hunting was allowed on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. In theory, you had to obtain an advance hunt reservation from the State for a definite date, and all slots were reserved ahead of time. In practice, usually less that half of the people with reservations showed up, and the unclaimed slots were filled first come-first served on the hunt morning. This entailed joining the "sweat line:" arriving at the check station the evening before the hunt, and getting one's name on the list for the next day's hunt. Hunters with reservations were required to check in by a certain time, then the "sweat line" list was used to fill the remaining slots.

   Hunters in the "sweat line" were allowed to stay in the check station parking lot overnight, and a good number of them spent their time drinking, playing cards, and telling "war stories." Early the next morning, after little or no sleep, they were turned loose with loaded guns to wander into the marsh. There were no duck blinds, so hunters just found a place to crouch down on a dike and wait for the birds. Hunting was actually pretty good much of the time, with Sacramento Refuge having the best hunter success rate of any of the Valley areas during the first couple of years it was open. The toll on other wildlife was also high, bitterns and foxes among the species found dead after a hunt day.

 

 

   In the 50 years since we lived there, I've stopped at Sacramento Refuge many times, on my way to or from other places. It looks pretty much the same, but there have been some significant changes in visitor facilities. The Visitor Route now starts before one enters  the main headquarters compound. There is a parking lot with restrooms, a kiosk with interpretive panels and leaflets, and a short nature trail. The Visitor Route itself is about twice as long as it was in the 1960s, and is one-way, so everyone is traveling the same direction throughout.

   I'm glad to see the expansion of facilities, but I'm a little sad that it is all so separated from other refuge activities. The refuge staff is probably happy not to have visitors coming to the office, taking up their time, but a "personal touch" is missing that can't really be filled with a kiosk. In all the times I've visited the parking area and driven the Visitor Route, I have never encountered a uniformed Fish and Wildlife Service employee. If I'd had a question not answered by the interpretive panels or the leaflets, it wouldn't have been answered. If I'd just wanted to share the thrill of being at a great wildlife area, there was no one to share it with.

   A greater disappointment is that wildlife watchers are now required to stay inside their cars, except at two locations set aside for leg-stretching and comfort station needs. Presumably, this is to keep the wildlife from being frightened. The rule is really unnecessary for bird protection. Waterfowl in a sanctuary setting don't get scared by people standing or even walking nearby. Birders don't move fast, or talk loud, or fire shotguns. If something should cause a group of ducks or geese to flush, they will usually settle right back down, again. I know; I've had a lot of experience on the Sacramento Refuge Visitor Route, and at many other wildlife sanctuary locations.

  Making visitors stay in their cars also takes much of the fun out of wildlife watching. It's not a solitary enterprise; it's best as a shared activity. The joys of bird watching come not from merely seeing birds: they involve comparing notes, sharing special finds ("Look, that's a Eurasian wigeon in with the balpates!"), helping with identifications ("See the white bar on the wing?"), and talking about what other trips they've taken and what other wildlife they've seen. For most people, their experience on the Visitor Route probably still beats staying home and watching "Animal Planet" on TV. It could be a lot better.


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