I would have none of it.
Takekawa, 58, packed her warm-weather clothes last week and headed to the San Diego area to join her partner, former U.S. Parks Service ranger Ed Forner, whom she met in college 40 years ago when they had summer jobs at the Grand Teton National Park.
I tracked her down via cellphone, and she agreed to an exit interview from her first of many travel destinations — Silver Strand State Beach on Coronado Island near San Diego.
“It’s beautiful down here,” she said, not really needing to remind me.
I’ve known Takekawa since she arrived at the Nisqually refuge as deputy manager in September 1995. I always found her to be accessible, easygoing and a straight shooter.
Five months after her South Sound arrival from her wildlife biologist job at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a 500-year flood struck the Nisqually River watershed. It swamped the refuge and many of the buildings there. Storm recovery included construction of a new refuge headquarters and visitors center, which was completed just as she was named refuge manager in 1999.
She was perfectly positioned to embark on the most ambitious estuary-restoration project in Pacific Northwest history. She helped develop and implement a plan to remove old farm dikes that had held back the Puget Sound tides for some 100 years, build a new interior dike, reconnect 762 acres to the tides and construct a mile-long boardwalk over the tideflats for the public to use.
“I never dreamed I would oversee such a huge project,” she said.
It took 12 years, a lot of partners and $12 million to pull the project off. Most agree that Takekawa was the glue who held it all together.
“She was a very steady, constant presence — a real solid leader,” said Nisqually refuge visitors services manager Sheila McCarten, who worked with Takekawa on estuary restoration at the San Francisco refuge. “She has a passion for wildlife, but she’s a people person, too. And she was committed to the decisions being made to restore the Nisqually estuary.”
Raised in Minneapolis — her father was a U.S. Postal Service worker and her mother a high school biology teacher — Takekawa knew at a young age she would be a wildlife biologist. Her high school senior year, she worked at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in rural Minnesota.
“That was it,” Takekawa said of a career choice from which she never wavered. She earned a degree in biology at the University of Minnesota and landed her first refuge job in 1978 as a wildlife biologist at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Florida. Eight years later, she was in the Bay Area.
When the Nisqually job opened in 1995, she jumped at it. She worked on startup of the Black River National Wildlife Refuge as an annex to Nisqually. One of her first public meetings was at Littlerock Elementary School before a menacing crowd of rural landowners who thought the federal government wanted to condemn their property for the birds and the bees.
Takekawa and others assured them the refuge would only be built with land purchased from willing sellers. It would be done with partners such as The Nature Conservancy and the Capitol Land Trust. Today, public ownership in this swampy South Thurston County setting totals several thousand acres.
“We have high praise for Jean,” said Kathleen Ackley, associate director of the Capitol Land Trust. “She had a vision for the Black River area, and she was willing to work with others.”
The Capitol Land Trust will name Takekawa its 2013 Conservationist of the Year on Feb. 12 at the nonprofit’s ninth annual Conservation Breakfast fundraiser at the Saint Martin’s University Marcus Pavilion in Lacey.
Among the many partners Takekawa worked with well was the Nisqually Tribe, whose ancestral lands include the refuge.
“I have such respect for the tribe’s challenging past,” Takekawa said.
I think I know one of the reasons why: Takekawa’s parents were raised in the Seattle-Bellevue area, but both of their families were uprooted during World War II and shipped to Japanese internment camps at Tule Lake, Calif., and Minidoka, Idaho.
“Life was forever changed,” Takekawa said in a somber voice.
For her, time spent on the shores of Puget Sound, restoring habitat for the salmon and seabirds, was a coming home of sorts, a link to family life disrupted before she was born. Those of us who visit the Nisqually refuge — 205,000 visitors in 2012 — all benefit from Takekawa’s full-circle journey.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444