HADLEY — Protecting forests, wetlands and waterways is more than a full-time job — for some, it is a lifelong passion. A 20-year veteran of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Wendi Weber was recently honored for her work protecting threatened species and promoting coastal storm resilience in the northeastern United States.
At the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies annual awards conference in April, Weber received the 2018 Robert McDowell Award for Conservation Management Excellence, the highest honor offered by the organization. Weber currently serves as Northeast Regional Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, a role she has held since 2011.
“Our region is a mosaic of communities, working lands, open spaces, and protected habitats, and a place where our history has been shaped by our relationship to the land,” Weber said.
The northeastern United States is the most densely populated region in the country, and a place where people and nature have learned to coexist. For Weber, preserving that balance is vital to her life’s work.
“In this digital age, more and more people are disconnected from nature. That’s why it is so vitally important that we manage our public lands not only for wildlife but for people,” Weber said. “When we connect with nature, whether we live in rural areas or in major cities, we can reconnect with ourselves and with each other.”
Weber discovered her passion for conservation on Cumberland Island in Georgia, watching a sea turtle lay eggs on a moonlit beach, then seeing turtles return years later to continue the cycle of life.
“Watching these prehistoric-looking creatures return years later to the same beach from which they were hatched, overcoming the many challenges to their survival, I knew I wanted to work in conservation,” Weber said. “I want to help conserve nature for my children and generations to come so they can experience and enjoy the great outdoors as much as I do.”
Growing up exploring the woods in her hometown, she went on to study biology at the University of Rhode Island and later the University of Georgia, specializing in zoology and fisheries.
Much of her work with the Fish and Wildlife Service has focused on coastal restoration and recovery in the aftermaths of Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy. Specifically, Weber is proud of her work that helped save the White River National Fish Hatchery in Vermont after Irene devastated the hatchery.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, coastal restoration projects that focused on reintroducing native species and limiting coastal developments helped promote storm resilience. Weber said one silver lining to these destructive storms is the opportunity to strengthen natural defenses along the Atlantic Coast and protect communities from future storms.
“These projects also create jobs and provide recreational opportunities that improve the quality of life for local residents and give a boost to the tourist economy that is the lifeline of many coastal communities,” Weber said. “I am proud the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has helped lead this effort to build a stronger Atlantic Coast that can better withstand the storms of the future.”
Weber also specializes in at-risk species conservation, and efforts to re-introduce threatened species into the wild. She helped get the New England Cottontail rabbit off the protected species list, and has led projects focused on river connectivity for fish passage, urban wildlife refuge partnerships.
“Throughout her career, (Weber) has consistently demonstrated the essential principles of collaboration and cooperation with conservation partners at all levels,” said Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies President James Connolly presenting the award. “She is deeply respected and appreciated by her colleagues in the state fish and wildlife agencies in the northeastern states.”
The Robert McDowell award is named after a 35-year veteran of the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Service. It first awarded to McDowell in 2015 the to honor Fish and Wildlife career professionals who have made significant contributions to conservation efforts in the region.
Before she was appointed Northeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011, Weber served as deputy director, and before that she worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington D.C. focused on endangered species protection in the northwestern U.S.. From the headquarters based in Hadley, she now oversees conservation activities in 13 states from Maine to Virginia in 72 conservation areas encompassing more than 500,000 acres.
Her work has covered a wide range of habitats from northern forests, marshes, the Appalachian mountains, coastal plains, estuaries and barrier beaches. All the while she forged partnerships with stakeholders, environmentalists, landowners, elected leaders and policy makers.
“Not only has our award winner been a passionate advocate for fish and wildlife, our award winner has been a stalwart supporter of the public use and enjoyment of fish and wildlife, thereby fostering the perpetuation of the conservation ethic,” Connolly said.
Thinking about the future of conservation, Weber says the ongoing pressure to use land for human development, combined with the changing environmental conditions like sea level rise and extreme weather events, are making jobs like her more difficult. She hopes that more public education around environmental issues and a shared sense of the value of protected lands will give future conservationists the drive to continue the work she has championed.
“But I have a lot of hope and optimism in our ability to work together to sustain these valuable natural resources into the future — no matter what the challenges are,” Weber said. “When nature thrives, we thrive.”
Sarah Robertson can be reached at email@example.com.