The Friends of the Wichitas (FOW) is excited to announce that it received a $38,000 Challenge Grant from the McMahon Foundation to support the Nature Store Project. Jim Stone, Board President said, “We want to thank the McMahon Foundation for providing us with the challenge grant. This grant is the first major step towards allowing the FOW to operate the nature store in the Visitor Center at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge (WMWR). The FOW are very excited about the nature store, which will greatly increase our ability to support the staff of the WMWR in all of their programs. With the help of the Lawton community and everyone who wants to protect and maintain this unique Refuge, we can match this grant. Businesses or individuals who wish to contribute can go to our website www.friendsofthewichitas.org or may contact FOW treasurer, Jim Meyer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is not only a large tourist attraction and with nearly 1.7 million visitors annually, it ranks among the largest tourist attractions in the State of Oklahoma. The Refuge accounts for literally thousands of tourist dollars for our community and everyone benefits when the Refuge thrives. The Banking on Nature report in 2013 found that recreational activities on this Refuge contributed an estimated $113.2 million in economic benefits for Comanche County area in 2011. The Refuge returned $44.47 for every dollar appropriated.
The nature store in the Visitor Center of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is the only one in the FWS Southwest Region that is still operated by an outside entity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a directive last year that all stores within a refuge be operated by Friends groups rather than outside organizations. Although the transfer of Refuge nature store operations to the FOW would increase annual proceeds available to benefit Refuge programs, the primary benefits would be FOW’s abilities and their dedication to enhancing access to goods and materials that contribute to public appreciation and support of our natural, cultural and historic resources, and the conservation purposes and mission of the Refuge.
The grant and matching funds will be used for equipment, software, internet and telephone, salaries, insurance, merchandise and store hardware. The store operates seven days per week, eight hours per day, 360 days per year. The current staff is comprised of local residents who are very competent in the day to day operations. With a large cadre of volunteers and the current staff, it will take very little time to restart the store operations once the funds are raised.
Tony Booth, Refuge Manager, said, “We very much appreciate the generous and thoughtful contribution from the McMahon Foundation to help the Friends of the Wichitas take over the nature store operations at the Refuge. It is a very worthwhile cause. Our local Friends organization contributes invaluable assistance and support to many programs and activities here at this Refuge, especially those that educate and provide services to the public. I am confident that they will operate the nature store in an effective manner and provide a quality service to our Refuge visitors.”
The Friends of the Wichitas is a very active organization of volunteers that support the Refuge activities in many ways. The FOW has no paid staff. Volunteers partner with the Refuge to support programs including environmental education and interpretative tours, trail maintenance, trash removal, controlled burns, wildlife and land conservation and management, and longhorn and bison auctions. Volunteers work in the Visitor Center and the Refuge Headquarters. FOW maintains a website, www.friendsofthewichitas.org where individuals and businesses may join. The website lists current activities.
The goal of the FOW is to provide outreach opportunities to the visiting public, assist the Refuge in accomplishing its mission of “conservation and management of fish, wildlife and habitat resources for the benefit of present and future generations,” and to provide support to youth groups to attend environmental education classes at the Refuge. Each year, the FOW provides more than 10,000 students with educational activities, and offers grants for school bus transportation. Each Saturday, Monday and Thursday, the FOW provides guided hikes in the Refuge. Volunteers offer more than 60 tours on Saturdays throughout the year.