Open Spaces: What's a National Wildlife Refuge?

What's a National Wildlife Refuge?

As someone who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I’m occasionally asked about what a National Wildlife Refuge is.  My first response is always, "well, it's sort of like a park, but different."

That is, of course, true, but I always want to give more of an explanation.  So, without further adieu, here it is:

Within the Department of the Interior, you’ll find both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – which manages national wildlife refuges -- and National Park Service – which manages national parks.  Both work toward preservation of our natural world, but, there are differences.

Arctic Refuge AlaskaThinking on a mountain at Arctic Refuge in Alaska Photo: Steve Chase/USFWS

National wildlife refuges are a network of more than 150 million acres of lands and waters, which conserves and restores wildlife habitat.  They certainly protect the beauty of landscapes.  They contain historic places and artifacts.  They offer recreation – hunting, fishing, photography, more than 2,500 miles of land and water trails, some of the greatest birding anywhere, and lots of great environmental education programs. 

But the primary purpose of national wildlife refuges is to conserve, restore, manage, and protect wildlife and plant resources for future generations and the health of the nation. 

Butte SinkPhoto: Mike Peters/USFWS

President Theodore Roosevelt designated Pelican Island in Florida as the first refuge in 1903.  Since then, the National Wildlife Refuge System has grown to 555 units – from remote Pacific Ocean islands with spectacular coral reefs, to the far reachs of Alaska to islands in the Caribbean.  There is at least one national wildlife refuge in every U.S. state and territory.  

National parks are set aside to conserve the scenery, natural beauty, historic interest and wildlife of a piece of land.  They are also set aside for recreational enjoyment for current and future generations.  You can camp, hike, explore, and more at national parks. 

Yellowstone Grand Prismatic SpringGrand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone, Photo: NPS

America’s oldest national park is Yellowstone.  Its 2,219,789 acres (larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined!) span Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana and was established by Congress and signed into law by President Grant in 1872.  Since then, 394 units have been added, 58 of which are designated as national parks, with over 84 million acres of land.

Sunset at YellowstoneSunset at Yellowstone, Photo: NPS

What that means, is that there’s lots to do outside!  If you haven’t seen it already, check out the redesigned ‘Let’s Go Outside!’ page for some great links for kids, families, educators and group leaders on how to get into nature.  You can also check out National Park Service’s map to find parks by activity type or you can find a national wildlife refuge anywhere in the country. 

As Americans, we own more than  623 million acres of land, thanks to generations who have gone before us.  How are you going to take advantage of it?

KayakersKayakers at Rachel Carson NWR, Photo: USFWS

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Last updated: June 21, 2012