By Christina Whiting
From maintaining outhouses, running rivers and chasing vandals from archaeological sites, to managing the visitor center at one of the largest National Wildlife Refuges in the United States, Poppy Benson has dedicated her life to protecting wild lands.
Her passion for the natural world began in a small piece of undeveloped woods she called The Swamp. Nestled within the inner-city area of Minneapolis where she was raised, these woods provided her with the chance to play outside in an undeveloped area.
Benson was first inspired to be a Ranger during a family trip to Glacier National Park when she was 11. Her desire to lead others was further nurtured by Girl Scouts and several memorable adventures as a young person. These included a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, a canoe trip and hiking the Alps during an international Scouts trip to Switzerland.
Now, Benson is a Refuge Ranger and Interpretive and Education Specialist for Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Homer. She was recently awarded the Alaska SeaLife Center Marine Science Outreach award, recognizing her achievements in ocean science, education and resource management.
“Lots of people have good ideas, but not everyone has the energy to see them to fruition,” said Steve Delahanty, Refuge Manager. “Poppy is the Energizer Bunny of the maritime refuge.”
Benson leads all the visitor services programs, including the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, education programming in remote villages and special outreach. Her 38-year career has included positions in the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) at the Maritime Refuge.
“Benson’s impact has been both significant and on a very large scale,” said Marc Webber, Deputy Refuge Manager. “The Alaska Maritime is one of the largest wildlife refuges anywhere in the world whose purpose is marine resource conservation.”
As a young adult, Benson worked for the BLM in Oregon and Las Vegas, as a fire prevention technician, a River Ranger, a wilderness specialist and in public relations.
Her drive to work in wild places soon pushed her north, and in 1985, Benson moved to Alaska to work in the Anchorage Regional Office of the USFWS. She was the writer/editor for refuges, writing 300-page environmental impact statements and working on plans for the new refuges of Kanuti, Nowitna and the Alaska Maritime.
Soon, Benson met and married Frank Cloyd, and in 1988 the couple moved to Homer when she was hired by the refuge as its first outreach and visitor center was located in what is now the Art Shop Gallery.
Benson created the visitor services program and started several programs for the Refuge.
Between 1989 and 2003, she helped develop the visitor center — from the feasibility study, to buying the land, helping to plan the design, supervising construction, creating exhibits and finally holding the grand opening.
Benson helped develop and nurture the Friends of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, a group that supports and advocates for Alaska’s refuges. She also helped to produce and create the award winning film “Journey of the Tiglax” that plays at the refuge visitor center.
Getting the public involved and interested in wild lands has been a part of Benson’s life for a long time. In 1992, she created stewardship camps for remote villages in the Pribilof Islands, and later in Sand Point and Unalaska. The camps aimed to teach kids both western science and traditional knowledge, build partnerships between the refuge and communities, and interest village kids in refuge careers.
That same year, she also created the Ferry Naturalist program for the Alaska Marine Highway routes to Kodiak and Unalaska islands. For 20 years she found the funding for, trained, and supported rangers for most ferry departures.
Just a year later, in 1993, Benson, Johnny Bushell, Sally Oberstein, Celeste Fenger, Willy Dunne and others created the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival. This Festival has grown from a weekend event celebrating the migration of shorebirds, to a four-day event that attracts thousands of visitors and well-known speakers from around the world.
Toting her newborn son, Cedar, Benson served as the festival’s first keynote speaker.
“We had to name him Cedar,” she said. “It was a nature name, plus he had a dad who was a carpenter, a mom who was in forestry and if he took after us, he’d be tall with red hair, so the name fit. Apparently, on the east coast, Cedar trees are shrubby, but we didn’t know that at the time.”
Benson has helped with the growth and development of the refuge’s education program; however, recent budget cuts are dismantling the program she’s built up over the last two decades. The visitor services program has gone from four employees two years ago, to two employees today.
“We haven’t had an educator at the refuge in a year and a half,” she said. “The outreach and visitor services program is being dismantled by sequestration. We really peaked about three years ago in terms of the services we can offer to the public, both in Homer and in our remote communities.”
Watching these changes is painful, Benson said, but she loves her job and shows up as passionate and dedicated as ever.
As she transitions toward retirement, Benson looks forward to redefining her life, continuing public service and remaining busy. Currently, possibilities include being a guest lecturer on cruise ships in Alaska or at boat shows, student teaching, working in Juneau during a legislative session and serving on a local Board. She will continue to lead her Girl Scout troop and is looking for someone to assist her.
Still nurturing a lifelong love of adventure, Benson is eager to have even more. She and Cloyd bought a boat and are planning to spend this summer exploring the British Columbia coast and the southeast Alaska coast the following summer.
Meet your Neighbor shares the story of residents of Homer and the surrounding area. If you’d like to suggest someone for a story, contact Christina Whiting at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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