Conte Refuge leader Andrew French gets national award
Andrew French, a project leader with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, has been given the 2013 Paul Kroegel Award as Refuge Manager of the Year by the National Wildlife Refuge Association and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Purchase photo reprints »
Andrew French, a project leader with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, talks about a trail planned for the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in Hadley. Purchase photo reprints »
SUNDERLAND — National Wildlife Refuge System veteran Andrew French jokes that his first office was the living room of the government quarters where he lived during his early childhood, when his father, William, was refuge manager of the Chautaqua National Refuge in central Illinois. In a black-and-white photo from that time, French, then a toddler, can be seen talking on the phone.
His toy basket, French says, was his “inbasket.”
Since then, French, who lives in Belchertown, has moved 14 times in his life — seven for his father’s career, and seven for his own.
This year, French was honored by the National Wildlife Refuge Association and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation with the 2013 Paul Kroegel Award as Refuge Manager of the Year.
French, 54, is project leader of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, as well as the smaller Stewart B. McKinney and John Hay National Wildlife refuges, which together encompass over 35,000 acres of land in the Connecticut River watershed across the states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
French landed his first official job with the Fish and Wildlife Service the summer between his junior and senior years of high school. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, French held 13 temporary jobs before landing his first permanent position as a wildlife inspector.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service,” French said in his Sunderland office. “The only thing that’s changed is the different jobs I thought I wanted to do.” He said that at one point he thought wanted to hold a corporate position, but found he preferred a position that allowed him closer influence over policy and program direction.
To get the refuge’s federal and nonfederal partners “around the same table,” French established the Friends of the Silvio O. Conte Refuge, a partnership of about 50 organizations representing people at the national, state and local levels.
French, also honored as the 2012 Take Pride in America Federal Land Manager of the Year, credits his success on and around the refuge to his partners. “My partners are why I received this recognition,” French said. “I’m doing my part, but the reason these things are happening is because of the partnership.”
French was part of the effort to establish the National Blueway System, a federally supported partnership program to advance conservation of rivers with national and regional significance. The Connecticut River and its watershed became the nation’s first National Blueway, designated by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar last May.
French said the Friends of Conte group is setting up a Connecticut River National Blueway Committee.
Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, the state office of the National Audubon Society, submitted French’s nomination for the Paul Kroegel Award.
Comins, who is chairman of the Friends of Conte, said partnership is what makes the Conte refuge unique, in that it spreads its impact beyond refuge lands. He thinks the designation of the Connecticut River as a National Blueway is a huge step for both the refuge and the rest of the watershed.
“We’re looking forward to a really bright future for Conte and the watershed as whole, Comins said. “Andy played a lead role in getting together this partnership. Partnership is what makes it all happen, and Andy is really the center of it all.”
National Wildlife Refuge Association President David Houghton, who got to know French while working for The Trust for Public Land, said he was struck by French’s collaborative and accommodating nature.
“He really understands the role of good government,” Houghton said. “Rather than (saying) to local communities, ‘I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help,’ it’s more like, ‘What are your goals and objectives and how could I help?’”
French said that to advance the legislative efforts of the Conte Refuge, he seeks to work through the conservation, education, and recreation initiatives of his partners. He gives the example of people wanting a clean river, but for a variety of reasons.
“If somebody wants to go canoeing and a clean river is going to be a better experience, they’re going to want a cleaner river,” French said. “The important thing is that somewhere you make that connection. Some people will take action based on their interest in canoeing. Some people will take action based on their interest in hiking … The important thing is that they take action.”
One way French has worked to bring the refuge to urban and suburban communities is through developing the Watershed on Wheels Express, a mobile exhibit designed to expose school-aged children to the plants, wildlife and environment of the Conte Refuge.
David Stier, director of the Springfield Science Museum, where the WoW has been used several times and is scheduled to come again this April, calls the exhibit an “incredible resource.”
“It’s an incredible amount of hands-on activities,” said Stier. “Many of them are very innovative, so whether it’s touch or sound, there’s ways to engage the audience and teach them about the refuge.”
Stier, who is co-chair of the recreation and education committee of the Friends of Conte, said the partnership has helped him to engage people with museum programs. He calls French “tireless” in his efforts to reach as many partners as possible.
“Andy’s a special guy,” Stier said. “Once in a while you get to work with someone like that, and you just wonder how they have the energy to get all they get done — and he does. He does it in a way that he doesn’t take advantage of any of his partners. He just tries to further his efforts.”
French said that while there is no typical day at his job, the only thing that is typical is that at the end of the day, he always wishes he had time to get more done.
French is now looking for volunteers to build a 1.2 mile wheelchair-accessible nature trail in Hadley, along the Fort River.
French can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com.