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Sean Kirst: On lands preserved for wildlife, no refuge from the shutdown

Other worries could wait. Sending a thinking-of-you card to Bob Schmidt, who defines the volunteer nature of the Friends of Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, was the first order of business Wednesday morning when the directors of the group held their monthly meeting.

That session was held in exile from the protected lands where, for a good portion of his life, Schmidt put his heart and soul. The Friends gathered in a conference room at Shelby Town Hall in Orleans County, 10 miles from where they normally meet.

Photos of many famous Washington, D.C., landmarks adorn those walls in Shelby, providing a fitting if frustrating backdrop for the meeting. The government shutdown in Washington has left the refuge headquarters locked and off-limits to the taxpaying public, meaning the Friends had to hunt down a different place to gather.

More than ever, in a discouraging time, they see Schmidt as a paragon of American selflessness. At 88, the retired steamfitter from Lockport has given almost 30,000 volunteer hours to the refuge, the equivalent of roughly 750 weeks – or 14 years – of full-time work. He did it for nothing because, as his wife, Catherine, puts it, “He loves nature and always did.”

Schmidt is a bird guy, and there are few places in all of upstate that match Iroquois as a haven for migrating birds. In appreciation, for decades, Schmidt provided a little bit of everything.

He mowed observation areas and worked along the trails. He also helped his buddy, Carl Zenger, an 80-year-old volunteer with similar passion, in caring for the wood duck and bluebird boxes that make the 10,800-acre refuge one of the premier spots in New York for easily viewing the elusive state bird.

From time to time, they would come across an Eastern Screech-Owl in a wood duck box, band it, then set it free.

Signs at the entrance to the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge administrative building, which is closed due to the ongoing federal government shutdown. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Schmidt, renowned for his resilience and vitality, is now in hospice care for lung cancer. At the meeting, Zenger gave a quiet update on his friend and promised to hand-deliver the card. In a telephone conversation afterward, Catherine Schmidt said the gesture means a lot to her husband, though the news that would best lift his spirits goes back to the same headache that pushed the meeting out to Shelby.

Schmidt, his wife said, wants the shutdown to end.

“He’s worried about his birds,” Catherine said.

The Friends would much prefer to meet at the Casey Road administration building. From its front door, they can look across the tall grass and wetlands of the Alabama swamps toward a forest where bald eagles, their patterns changed by an unusually warm winter, have stayed put rather than wandering afield in search of food.

The national symbol, heedless of a shutdown, is not going anyplace.

As for the refuge, its headquarters is shuttered. While refuge manager Tom Roster has been coming in, unpaid, to make sure of fundamental safety and maintenance issues, his three-person staff is home without pay. Dozens of staff members from the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation office are in the same boat, while three state biologists and technicians who use the building have been forced to look elsewhere to do their jobs.

Bob Schmidt, legendary volunteer, at work at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesy Friends of the Iroquois National Wildlife refuge)

A notice on the locked door informs visitors of the federal shutdown, caused by an impasse between President Trump and Congress over Trump’s demand for billions of dollars to complete a wall along the Mexican border.

The roughly 120 members of the friends include men and women whose shared love for conservation somehow bridges a sprawling range of political views and passions. At the meeting, the directors carefully avoided taking sides, choosing instead to agree on one central point:

The shutdown, if it goes on much longer, could start doing real damage at Iroquois, a message they intend to capture in a letter they want Washington lawmakers to see.

“Probably the longer it goes,” Zenger said, “the more will fall off the table.”

The immediate and obvious issue is that visitors walking onto the territory right now are doing it without any supervisory presence, and thus at their own risk. The lack of heavy snow has been a lucky break, because no workers are around to clear the hiking trails or parking lots, when needed.

To the Friends, the first concern is the day-to-day well-being of staff members who are going without pay. As for the mission of the volunteers, even simple tasks are abruptly complicated: Ann Fourtner, a member since the Friends group was founded almost 20 years ago, has worked out a time when Roster can reach out the door to pass along any mail the group receives.

Ringneck Marsh at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. Amid the federal shutdown, visitors can still travel to the refuge, but they go there at their own risk. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The locked building also cuts off access to materials Zenger uses to construct, clean or repair bluebird or martin houses, a never-ending mission that could eventually diminish those populations, if left undone. The members expect that a “Build a Toadhouse” program set for children will not happen, due to the shutdown. The gift shop, a central way of raising money, is closed.

"If that building were open, we'd be out there working," said Pete Warn, 80, an Air Force retiree who fell in love with the swamps as a child, when his mother brought him to see vast flocks of migrating geese. "This is just a terrible time of year for our planning to be curtailed."

Their annual goal is raising awareness of what they see as an extraordinary yet too-often-overlooked regional jewel. They were already forced to cancel one bird-watching walk, and their growing fear involves the fate of “Spring into Nature,” a pivotal April celebration that often attracts more than 1,000 visitors and serves as a community liftoff in the spring.

In the end, they simply find something deeply maddening in a government-imposed lack of access to a place whose purpose is a brilliant affirmation of democracy.

“These are lands that belong to us,” said Celeste Morien, a retired teacher and the president of the Friends who paid for seed from her own pocket, then poured it Thursday into bird feeders at Iroquois.

From the time she was a child, she said, she saw the entire national wildlife refuge system – with its roots in the fierce conservation philosophy of New York's Teddy Roosevelt – as a vibrant symbol of America.

She hates to think we now use that symbol at our own risk.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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