January 27, 2021

Neal Smith Friends Group named National Group of the Year

For the outstanding work they do for the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, the Friends of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge have been named the 2020 National Wildlife Refuge System Friends Group of the Year. The award was given by the National Wildlife Refuge Association located in Washington D.C.

The award recognizes outstanding contributions by a group of dedicated volunteers in Friends organizations who provide essential services to the National Refuge System.

Head of the local group is Joan Van Gorp, president of the board of directors. Consisting of 260 members, the Friends group continually supports the National Wildlife Refuge System’s “Big Six” recreational activities occurring on the refuge including hunting, fishing, birding, photography, education and interpretation. It also reaches out to the local farming community, residents of the Greater Des Moines area, national and international visitors, students, staff and volunteers.

“This Friends group is a powerhouse raising needed funding through foundations, events and donor support to expand the refuge boundaries and support operations,” president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association Geoffrey Haskett said. “Sales at the Prairie Point Nature Store at the visitor center provides the refuge with more than $100,000 annually to pay for operations and outreach expenses such as intern stipends and bus transportation to get students to the refuge. The group also funds special projects such as hiring Working Dogs for Conservation to detect aggressive invasive plants and pinpoint hard-to-find beneficial plants and collaborating with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation in land acquisitions.”

Van Gorp has a close connection with the refuge, growing up on a farm nearby and visiting as a child. She later studied there as a master gardener and volunteered her time at Neal Smith. She has been a member of the board since 2007 and has served as president since 2012.

“Over the years, I have seen this amazing landscape brought back to life and I love sharing it,” said Van Gorp. “Our volunteers are exceptional and the staff members are truly public servants. They are the ones responsible for our success.”

Van Gorp will represent the group and accept the award at the National Wildlife Refuge Association's Virtual Wildlife Refuge Awards event Oct. 22. Those wanting to attend the event can register at visitrefugeassocation.org/awards or call 202-577-3200.

For more than 25 years, the NWRA has honored the outstanding accomplishments of those involved in the refuge system including refuge managers, employees, volunteers, Friends groups and advocates. The National Wildlife Refuge System depends on their dedication to manage the world’s largest network of lands and waters set aside for wildlife conservation.

Contact Jamee A. Pierson at 641-792-3121 ext. 6534 or jpierson@newtondailynews.com