In 1903, Florida bird lovers visited President Theodore Roosevelt and told him about the plight of birds on Pelican Island off the coast of Florida: Several species were being slaughtered to provide feathered plumes for fashionable hats. Roosevelt responded quickly with an executive order that made Pelican Island a federal bird reservation — the first time the U.S. government set aside land for the benefit of wildlife.

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is mourning the loss of our 15th director, Sam Hamilton, a biologist, hunter and angler who was every bit as dedicated to conservation as Roosevelt. Hamilton died Feb. 20 at the age of 54, and was buried Friday in his native Starkville, Miss.

Sam started his love affair with preserving our country’s public lands at age 15, when he worked in the Youth Conservation Corps at Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi, banding ducks and geese and building waterfowl pens. After 12 years as director of the Southeast Region, based in Atlanta, he reached the top national job just last year, overseeing the most extensive network of public lands devoted to the conservation of wildlife in the world — almost 150 million acres.

Now it’s up to the 8,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees to carry on Sam’s legacy. That work continues on many fronts, but a few of them are worth special note:

• Climate change is real, and he challenged the wildlife service to step up and deal with it. A biologist by training, Sam always looked to science to guide policy. He identified climate change as "the transformational conservation challenge of our time," and saw that it was already having an observable impact on wildlife. It is accelerating the expansion of invasive species in places like the Everglades, where they threaten to overwhelm native plants; it’s causing a rise in sea levels at some of our 166 coastal refuges; and it’s changing the flow and pattern of our rivers and wetlands.

• The fight to conserve endangered species is a fight for us all. Hundreds of thousands of Atlantic Salmon once made their epic migration from Greenland back to the rivers of Maine; today only a small fraction of their species survive to make the trek. But there are also success stories, like the American alligator, once dwindling alarmingly because of hunting and habitat loss. It was taken off the endangered list in 1987 and rebounded to the point that it can now be hunted again.

• The wildlife service cannot do the job alone. Sam believed in and promoted collaborative partnerships among many groups: federal, state, local and private. No single entity, he told a Senate subcommittee last year, “can ensure the sustainability of our nation’s fish and wildlife resources working independently.” That’s why the Fish and Wildlife Service is working with state fish and wildlife agencies, Ducks Unlimited, private landowners and farmers, Native American tribes, the Conservation Fund, and many other partners.

• Sam knew public lands exist to be enjoyed as well as conserved. Most of our wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries are open to the public and provide a vast variety of activities: hunting and fishing, boating and hiking, nature photography and environmental education. You can hunt for deer at Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, or photograph a Louisiana black bear at Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. That was the simple brilliance of Roosevelt’s approach to creating public land: It belongs to you, for your benefit, and that of future generations, as well as for the benefit of wildlife.

“It is not an exaggeration to say,” Sam told the Senate subcommittee at his confirmation hearing, that “as wildlife goes, so goes the nation.”

That is a sentiment old T.R. himself would have endorsed enthusiastically, and that we will keep in mind as the wildlife service, its people and its partners move forward.

Cindy Dohner is Southeast regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Atlanta.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director dies
Biologist, hunter and angler Sam Hamilton began his love affair with preserving our country's public lands at the age of 15.