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Written By Elsie Davis

Michael Johnson, a 30-year veteran with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the 2022 Paul Kroegel National Wildlife Refuge Manager of the Year. He serves as the manager of Clarks River Refuge and the new Green River Refuge that Michael and his team established. He is known throughout western Kentucky as the face of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Presented annually, the Paul Kroegel award recognizes outstanding accomplishments by a refuge manager in the protection and management of our national wildlife refuges. The award is given in honor of Paul Kroegel, the first manager of the first refuge established in 1903 at Pelican Island, Florida.

“Michael’s ability to form relationships and work with diverse groups of people was essential in establishing and garnering public support for the Green River Refuge,” says Leopoldo Miranda-Castro, the Service’s Southeast Regional Director. “He listened and worked with the communities to gather their support for the new refuge. As a result, the community understood that lands for this refuge would complement local and state efforts to conserve the area’s natural heritage and to provide increased public access for recreational opportunities, such as hunting and fishing. Local supporters also recognize that refuge lands will keep working for both people and wildlife, including agricultural use and other land management techniques.”

Founded in 2019, the Green River National Wildlife Refuge in Henderson, Kentucky, became the nation’s 568th refuge. It was born with a 10-acre donation from the Southern Conservation Corporation (SCC), a non-profit Conservation Land Trust started in 2003. The donation resulted from Michael’s prior work with SCC to conserve habitats in and around Clark’s River Refuge in Benton, Kentucky. In 2021, Green River Refuge expanded to 707 acres including funding from the national Land and Water Conservation Fund, consisting of offshore oil and gas revenues. The eventual goal for the Green River Refuge is to expand to 24,000 acres through land acquisitions from willing sellers. The new refuge includes a 5,000 square-foot facility which will serve as refuge headquarters.

Michael leads a staff of six people who oversee both the 9,500-acre Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1998, and Green River Refuge. He has managed Clark’s River for 18 years. In 2010, Michael was commissioned by the Governor of Kentucky as a Kentucky Colonel, the state’s highest honor, for helping to provide people with opportunities to enjoy its natural resources. In 2019, the staff of Clarks River Refuge, including Michael, was presented the Tennessee River Ripple Effect Award for the Government Department category. The Government Department award annually recognizes one local, state, or federal department that works to protect and improve Tennessee River Valley waterways. Most recently, Michael received the Service’s Southeast Regional Director Honors Award for outstanding performance in 2021 for his efforts and commitment to establishing Green River Refuge.

A father of two children and four grandchildren, one of Michael’s greatest accomplishments is mentoring and growing the careers of others. As manager of Clarks River, he assisted more than 22 student volunteers with employment in federal, state, and non-profit wildlife conservation agencies.

“I was always told the greatest contribution to conservation one can make lies within those they hire. Most people do not have the opportunity to hire numerous new employees throughout a career,” says Michael. “However, one does have the opportunity to interact with the next generation of conservationists in many ways. This can be through seasonal hires and volunteers, but it can also be through so many other avenues. I pride myself in taking a genuine interest in those I interact with, and I am always willing to help guide them, as appropriate, to the next step of their personal and professional journey.”

One of Michael’s priorities for the new Green River National Wildlife refuge was forming an active Friends of Green River NWR group that is supporting acquisitions and resource management activities and quality wildlife dependent recreation in the community. Michael and his team planned and celebrated the formalization of this partnership at a virtual signing ceremony in 2020 for Friends Group members and Service regional leaders during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To honor Friends Group members, volunteers, students, and people in the community who contributed to the success of Clarks River Refuge, Michael supported the construction of a Conservation Garden at the refuge. Its main feature is the Conservation Champions Wall.

“Our Kentucky family unit is small, as my wife and I are originally from Arkansas. However, we are very close, and we have so many others in our lives here we consider family,” says Michael. “We are blessed with four grandchildren who are at our house almost daily. If you have a conversation with me, be prepared to hear about how awesome, special, and challenging the grandchildren are, and then be prepared to look at a lot of pictures.”

Whether a present or former team member, student volunteer, or Friends Group member, Michael is known for considering people a permanent part of his refuges’ family. That is one reason he is known as the face of the National Wildlife Refuge System in western Kentucky.