Today I am at the grand opening of the new Desert National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Nevada.
It is a spectacular new building, built with revenue generated by the sale of public land … not from the pockets of the average taxpayers.
The 11,000-square-foot visitor center features exhibits, two classrooms/meeting rooms, offices and a bookstore. It is also loaded with environmentally friendly design elements, and the refuge is applying for the highest certification for sustainability from the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED Platinum.
What is great about Desert NWR and its new visitor center is that it is only 23 miles from the city of Las Vegas, a city with about 600,000 residents. The largest refuge in the lower 48 states, just a stone’s throw from the 31st largest city in the United States? Amazing.
Actually, it isn’t that unusual. Nearly half of our 562 national wildlife refuges are within traveling distance of small cities, and eight refuges are within 25 miles of population centers of 3 million. Today, there is at least one wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of most major metropolitan areas. Even in Times Square in New York City, you are only about 25 miles from Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that our nation has become more urban. About 80 percent of Americans now live in urban communities.
That creates problems for us and for the conservation community as a whole … but also opportunities.
Wildlife can be seen as far-away and not important amid the bricks and pavement of a city. Urban living just isn’t naturally conducive to making a connection with wildlife, and we risk becoming irrelevant to many Americans.
Not every urban center has a national wildlife refuge in its backyard. That’s why we developed National Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships – urban areas owned by our partners … Think parks, front yards, vacant lots, trails, even zoos, that each offers “stepping stones” to enjoy nature, realizing that the public has diverse interests and experiences levels with the outdoors.
One of the pilots is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, the Southwest’s first urban refuge, was established in 2012, and through an Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership, it will establish an urban presence before the refuge officially opens in 3-5 years.
The partners bring to us their community expertise, knowledge and relationships. They’ll help us learn and appreciate the diverse perspectives and values of urban communities and adapt our approach accordingly.
Our refuges are often the most visible element of the Fish and Wildlife Service, but they are by no means the only part of the Service branching out into cities. Throughout the nation and throughout the Service, we are bringing nature to cities.
Urban Bird Treaties help urban areas become sanctuaries for migratory and resident birds. Last year under this program, nearly 1,000 students and others took part in a raptor education program that involved installing an Osprey Cam on one of the bridges in town.
When spring finally settles in, many folks, young and old, will be able to take part in urban fishing days to introduce them to one of the best of all recreation activities. For a one-stop shop for all of your angling needs, consider using www.takemefishing.org from our partner the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation. This website identifies thousands of fishing locations, bait stores and everything else needed for a successful fishing trip.
In Anchorage, we teamed up with several Alaska departments to teach kids there the thrill of salmon fishing.
And no matter the temperature, some kids are learning more about native fish. Twenty years ago, our biologists at Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery in Washington State developed the Salmon in the Classroom program, which involves students in raising salmon from egg to fry stage in their classroom. For the Native Fish in the Classroom in Albuquerque, staff use New Mexico’s state fish, the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, or native fishes of the Middle Rio Grande.
We have a long way to go to reach all city dwellers, but what is happening in Albuquerque, the Pacific Northwest, here in the Nation’s Capital, outside Las Vegas at Desert NWR and elsewhere gives us an excellent foundation.