Open Spaces: National Wildlife Refuges Renew the Land

National Wildlife Refuges Renew the Land

By Susan Morse

The refuge whose beauty awes you may once have been an arsenal, a waste dump or abandoned farm field. National Wildlife Refuge Week, Oct. 14-20, is a fine time to learn how national wildlife refuges renew damaged land and make it flourish again.

In the Midwest, staff at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa and the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa and Minnesota are engaged in two of the world’s largest restorations of tallgrass prairie. They’re cultivating native plants that once covered the Plains before over-plowing depleted the soil, worsened seasonal flooding and nearly wiped out many species. Through their efforts, the land is returning to health and again sustaining bison, elk, butterflies and grassland birds.

sawtooth-sunflowerThe Sawtooth sunflower is also known as the 'thick-toothed sunflower". This native perennial wildflower can reach up to 12 feet tall. (Photo: USFWS)

We benefit too by having cleaner air and drinking water and native pollinators to keep farms and gardens productive.

Other refuges, such as Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois and Vieques National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico are renewing lands that once held chemical weapons factories, munitions plants and bombing ranges.

Consider Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge, which opened to visitors two years ago. Once among the country’s most notorious Superfund sites, it’s an environmental showplace today, following a $2 billion cleanup. Bison, elk and mule deer now graze on the tallgrass where the U.S. Army once made chemical weapons and Shell Oil manufactured pesticides.

The refuge offers regular nature tours as well as hiking, biking and fishing. A new nine-mile Wildlife Drive lets drivers sightsee along bison pasture, wetlands, prairie and woods.

Wildlife flourish today on refuges that once were damaged by oil spills, pesticides and agricultural runoff. It’s all part of a wildlife legacy we leave to a new generation.

Susan Morse is a writer–editor in the Refuge System’s Branch of Communications

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Last updated: June 21, 2012