Written by Janelle Wicks
On Saturday, April 22nd 2023, Senator Jeff Merkley held a community town hall at the Burns Paiute Tribe’s Armory Building in Burns, Oregon. At every town hall that the Senator holds, he begins by recognizing an individual or organization that is doing important and impactful work in their community. This particular town hall fell on Earth Day and the first weekend following the annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival. Senator Merkley chose to recognize the Planning Committee for the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival. It was my honor to receive this recognition on behalf of our event’s committee members. We were gifted an American Flag that had been flown over the US Capitol and an opportunity to make remarks to those in attendance. Below are my prepared remarks.
Hello and good evening, neighbors and friends. My name is Janelle Wicks and I am the Executive Director of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. It is an honor to stand up here tonight representing the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival Planning Committee. We are a small but mighty team including:
Tara Thissell, Public Affairs Specialist for Bureau of Land Management who manages our website, participant registration, social media, and general event coordination including but not limited to the art show and sale.
Becki Graham, High Desert Partnership’s Administrative Coordinator, took the lead on this year’s Banquet, silent auction, and raffle drawings.
Deanna Threall of the Harney County Chamber of Commerce engaged local businesses and coordinated this year’s glass egg hunt.
Isabelle Fleuraud with the Harney County Library joined our team this year and was instrumental in increasing the Library’s participation by hosting FREE programs to participants and the local community.
Teresa Wicks, Eastern Oregon Biologist for Portland Audubon, established a majority of our event schedule, recruited and coordinated dozens of tour guides and volunteer drivers from her organization and elsewhere; Her connections throughout the birding and natural resource community absolutely made our event what it was.
Friends of Malheur Refuge – led by myself, participate in planning efforts from start to finish; we sponsor the Artist in Residence program which reaches over 600 youth throughout area schools; we provide $1,000 worth of awards for K-12 Youth Art Contest winners; and participate as a vendor at the Art Show & Sale.
Of course, we also have community members like Clay Guetling and Dave Vickstrom volunteering their time to make this festival happen.
We may be a small group planning and coordinating to pull off this festival but the work does not stop with us and we couldn’t do what we do without the strength and generosity of our community lifting us up. This is truly a community effort. We are successful in no small part because of every additional community member and local business that chooses to get involved and support the event – whether that be the Cattlewoman’s Association, the Burns Llama Trailblazers, or the The Lions Club who come out EVERY year to build bird houses with kids. Local hotels provide reduced rates for festival tour guides, local school woodshop programs contributed bird houses to the silent auction and whose proceeds were donated back to the youth. And of course the Pine Room who not only provided 30 box lunches to program participants but who, I am sure, stayed VERY busy all weekend feeding the many, many visitors in town.
The Harney County Migratory Bird Festival began as a Kiwanis sponsored event in 1981. At that time, Kiwanis Members decided that with the abundance of birds using the Harney Basin in the spring, a bird festival would draw visitors from outside of the Harney Basin. They were right. Today, 42 years later, the Harney Basin continues to be a critical migratory stopover during these transitional spring months. And where the birds go, so go the birders and the tourism dollars they bring with them. This year 275 people pre-registered and many more participating on a walk-in basis just because they could tell something cool was going on! 61% of attendants were NEW to our festival and registration revenue exceeded roughly $20k! These are funds that we will use for future events and to make partially available for community projects that align with our goal of connecting people to the wonders of our local natural resources, inspiring our local youth, and supporting our community.
I want to take a moment to highlight some of the unique ways the 2023 event connected visitors and community members with each other, and the collaborative work the Harney Basin is known for. Our Downtown History Walking Tours, led by Karen Nitz of the Harney County Library connected 60 people to the historic people, places, and stories of Burns. The Wetlands Happy Hour, hosted by Harney Basin Wetlands Collaborative Partners, specifically High Desert Partnership, Portland Audubon, Friends of Malheur, and Doverspike Beef brought more than 50 visitors and locals together to learn about the social, economic, and ecological work conducted by HBWC partners.
I am proud to live here, to be a part of this team, to work for an organization whose mission is to promote the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and I am humbled to receive this award on behalf of our team and ultimately on behalf of our community. Thank you, Senator Merkley for recognizing our efforts.