Rachel Carson: A Conservation Legacy
Office of External Affairs 

Refuges for Wildlife and People

During her tenure as Chief Editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Rachel Carson wrote about national wildlife refuges as places of sanctuary. The “Conservation in Action” series highlights five national wildlife refuges and the treasures they contain.

In 1945, there were only about 200 refuges nationwide—most in the Dakotas, and most for waterfowl. After a decade of drought and then a prolonged world war, people were more keenly aware of protecting safe places for themselves as well as the natural inhabitants of their country. Not only was it imperative to guarantee safe nesting areas, but it became apparent that it was also imperative to assure proper sanctuaries on wintering grounds throughout the United States to allow for stop-over sites along the flyways, or invisible “highways in the skies,” where migrating birds could find all their needs, their habitats.

Rachel Carson wrote about certain refuges that exemplified the importance of safe spots along flyways for birds, but she also correlated these areas with Americans’ inner sense and desire to experience the natural world away from the bustle of everyday life. Refuges could be those safe havens for both. The strategic location of these refuges where they would contribute most to the health of wildlife and habitats and access by people were central themes Carson used in her writing, the purpose of which was to give the American people ample evidence of their importance. Her ideas about how to live in harmony with nature, and implications of human activities on the global web of life were illustrated in these refuges. The idea of creating viable habitats from previously worn-out lands resounded with those who had lived through the Dust Bowl days. To experience the re-growth of such lands once derelict but now teeming with new life was all one needed to appreciate the resilience of Nature, and the tenacity of the human spirit.

Not just for ducks
National Wildlife Refuges are more than just shelters for ducks. They are living laboratories that define the idea of what is “wild.” One can learn how Nature reacts to environmental influences; weather, seasons, flood and famine. Refuges provide wildlife with habitat and all its components: food, water, shelter and space. Refuge staff work to ensure that migratory birds, threatened and endangered species and fish have the habitat components they need to thrive. Creating a healthy ecosystem that supports a diversity of living and non-living organisms creates healthier environment for wildlife, and one in which the human animal benefits as well.
Refuges also warn us of the consequences of tinkering with the components of nature. Rachel Carson used refuges to contrast their health against pesticide-laden lands. What did she find? Less pollutants resulted in fewer animals suffering from compromised health and ultimately population decline. The snowball was melting, and at a quicker pace than had ever been seen before. This contrast so alarmed Rachel that she set off on a one-person crusade to uncover the facts about pollutants. It was not a course she would have chosen for herself, but one that had to be explored.

Where are we now?
Today, national wildlife refuges have a variety of purposes, not just as the 1930’s “duck factories.” Refuges are valuable areas that conserve habitat for year-round resident species; threatened and endangered species facing extinction; migratory birds stopping to feed and rest and recharging their batteries before continuing on their path; and fish that use protected areas to spawn and raise their young. Common or extraordinary, each animal survives because it has these places.

It is becoming more difficult to provide for these wild creatures’ every need as outside pressures mount. Clean water, and plenty of it, is essential to all life, and everybody wants their share. Merely having enough room to carry out their methods of survival is being squeezed by ever-burgeoning development. Wildlife competes with humans for each component of habitat on every level, every day.

Rachel Carson knew of the cumulative effects of pollutants. She also saw national wildlife refuges as cleansers of the environment. Wetlands act as sponges for contaminants as well as floods lessening the impacts of both. Air quality is enhanced by the number of plants breathing in carbon dioxide and expelling oxygen. As seed sources for species to repopulate denuded areas, refuges are vital banks holding precious commodities we will need in the future.

Awakening a Sense of Wonder
Most importantly, Rachel Carson knew of the essential need to educate future generations about our national wildlife refuges. Because of the pressures illustrated above, people of all ages, but especially young people, need to understand the workings of the basic building blocks, those habitat components, and how they affect each and every one of us on this earth. Carson knew that we lose our natural sense of wonder as we age. She tried to show us how to gain it back, or at least slow the loss with trips into natural places like refuges. Then to see the wonder in every place and appreciate it for the value it has was a goal set for each of us, wherever we might be. For Carson, National Wildlife Refuges held the key to unlocking our innate “sense of wonder.”

Last updated: April 12, 2007

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