Little group making a big impact for wildlife

Seal Beach Refuge earns National Group of Year Award

Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach 75th Anniversary, that was open to the public. It was a 2 day event at the Naval Weapons Station wharf (which just down the street from the Refuge Nature Center) and there was a ship in at the wharf. Taken March 23, 2019. Front row: Christa Shackleford, Ada Bosnjak, Jill Mills. Back row: Carolyn Vance, Margo Lazzari, Joe Lazzari, Tom Young, and Mark Beaty.

A small group of volunteers has been working tirelessly to help the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge on the Naval Weapons Station for years. For logistical reasons, the group hasn’t had the freedom to grow too big. But that didn’t’ stop the little group from bringing in a big trophy.

The Friends of Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge were recently awarded the National Wildlife Refuge Association’s 2022 Molly Krival— Refuge Friends Group of the Year Award. The award is named for the late Molly Krival, a pioneer in the Refuge Friends movement throughout the national Refuge System.

The group was recognized for their efforts in helping the 965 acre tidal marsh that sits on the land inside the Naval Weapons Station. The group formed in 1996 with the goal of providing support for the marsh with cleanups, invasive plant removal, biological surveys and other needed services. That has included a steady presence at community events as the group has sought support and offered education about the importance of the area for wildlife.

Among those efforts was the efforts to study an endangered species that needs the marshland to survive. It was noted in the nomination papers submitted by Andy Yuen, the Project Leader, San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Yeun took it upon himself to nominate the group since the Seal Beach Friends’ Refuge Manager position is currently vacant.

“The enduring value and benefit of the Friends are reflected in their 23 years of conducting all of the Refuge bird surveys and monitoring of the endangered California least tern during the breeding season,” Yuen wrote in his nomination submission.

Current president of the Friends of Seal Beach group, Carolyn Vance said that the group was unaware that they had even been nominated. She said the group tends to get confused with the larger and multiple groups that work to support the Bolsa Chica Wetlands.

“It was just out of the blue,” Vance said of winning the award. “It’s extra special for us because nobody knows about us.”

Prior to the pandemic, the group put in regular volunteer days to work in the refuge. They also conducted public tours to show and educate people about the wildlife that call the refuge home, or use it during migration. Vance said that prior to the pandemic the group put in about 4,000 collective hours per year in volunteering.

Since his retirement in 2013, Seal Beach resident Joe Lazzari said his involvement with the Friends group has become like a job to him. Lazzari has helped spearhead the editorial article about the Refuge that have appeared in the Sun and he said he hopes more people will find ways to support the Refuge. He also noted that the fact that the Friends group was recognized with this national award is a credit to the small groups persistence.

“It’s pretty amazing that we were recognized in this way,” Lazzari said. “It (the award) represents more than just a year.”

Due to the fact that it is on a Navy Base, there are national security concerns. All volunteers must pass background checks to get permits to enter the base. All tour participants must also pass checks to sign up for a tour.

That has forced the group to keep its numbers small, compared to most volunteer service groups. They have about 50 members who are cleared to enter the base regularly and those have to re-apply every year. There are another 10 or so, who are more part-time, or just monetary supporters.

When the pandemic hit, all work and tours stopped. But the group kept up it’s consistent outreach with emails and zoom meetings to keep members engaged and to also keep the refuge in the minds of the community. Prior to the pandemic the group was a consistent presence at community events, even ones that were well outside the area.

In 2018, the friends attended an event at the Los Angeles Zoo and people who visited their booth eventually made the trip to take a tour of the refuge. Yuen also noted the friends efforts in submitting articles about the refuge and the animals in it, to the Sun News so readers could learn more about the animals.

Even without a refuge manager currently, the Friends of Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge push forward. They volunteer. They work the hours. They reach out to the community and they have been recognized nationally for their efforts.

“It’s a group effort, always,” Vance said.

The Wildlife Refuge Awards dinner will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 14 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC.

For more on the group, visit,