The local Friends of Big Lake organization was one of three Friends groups from Arkansas represented at the first-ever National Friends of the Refuges Conference in Washington, D.C.
According to Brian Braudis, manager of the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi County, he and Manila Mayor Melvin Browning joined 300 representatives of Friends groups across the country for the conference.
Braudis explained there are currently 45,000 Friends members giving an estimated 1 million volunteer hours every year to augment the efforts of their local refuge managers and staff.
The conference was held, he said, to kick off the celebration of the centennial of wildlife refuges in America, which will take place in 2003.
"They are building momentum for the centennial celebration," he explained.
The first wildlife refuge in America, Pelican Island in Florida, was established in 1903 by then-President Theodore Roosevelt in response to a request by a group of Florida residents.
"We feel, based on that, we've been working with the community and Friends groups since the inception of the refuge system," Braudis said.
People from 43 states attended the conference, including representatives from the Big Lake, White River and Felsenthal refuges in Arkansas.
The conference included workshops and training in building Friends groups membership, raising funds, environmental education and hosting wildlife festivals.
U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., was the keynote speaker for the event. Braudis said he and Browning brought back information that will help build membership in the newly formed Friends of Big Lake organization, and help them in their efforts to boost tourism and provide visitor services at the refuge.
"This will be a great economic factor for northeast Arkansas and Mississippi County," Browning said. "We will bring in people from both sides of the river, and from the Interstate. It will be an economic factor for all of us. We will all benefit. There is a diamond field sitting in our back yard, and we are going to go out and mine it."