Bald cypress trees at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, GA
A visitor prepares her smartphone to scan quick response (QR) codes along the iNature Trail
at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL
Credit: Chelle Koster Walton

Just when you thought you could give your smartphone a rest, national wildlife refuges are finding reasons for you to keep it on. In green spaces where personal electronics were once as rare as blue-footed boobies, refuge staff ­­are encouraging the use of mobile apps from QR code readers to GPS navigators to connect wired visitors with nature.

Two game-changers: the August 2011 debut of the interactive iNature Trail at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida – the first trail in the National Wildlife Refuge System to cater expressly to smartphone users -- and the December 2011 launch of the mobile app MyRefuge, featuring maps of scores of refuge recreation trails and other visitor attractions.

Both approaches are spreading fast in the Refuge System and sparking a drive for more. Where better than a wildlife refuge, after all, to use popular nature apps such as iBird and Leafsnap, which help users identify birds and plants? Staff are also exploring opportunities for citizen science apps, such as Mojave Desert Tortoise, used to track the movements of the threatened animal – should you stumble across one ­– and Project Noah, which lets you document the wildlife you see. They’re also exploring ways they can harness other smartphone features such as cameras and podcasts to enhance refuge visits. 

Some visitors don’t need convincing.

“It was great. It really added to our experience,” said Emily Molzahn, about the iNature Trail she and a friend recently sampled at J.N. “Ding” Darling Refuge. The trail features QR codes that link to interpretive videos at 10 key points on Wildlife Drive. “I’ve never seen anything like that before on a nature trail,” said the Barrington, Ill. resident.

“We kept driving along, scanning each code,” said Molzahn, and watching the short YouTube videos that popped up, explaining refuge sights. A separate kids’ video, said Molzahn, “is more interactive. They have the Refuge System mascot, the blue goose, and they tell you how to scoop fish like a pelican. It’s real cute.”

Robin Baker, of Winter Haven, Florida, who recently drove the iNature Trail with his wife Kathy and son Christopher, also raved. “It enhances the experience,” he said. “It’s almost like having a tour guide there with you.”

Other refuges are following with enthusiasm. Patuxent Research Refuge, outside Washington, D.C., is putting QR codes at trailheads. Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico plans to do the same. Says visitor services manager Debbie Pike, “I think QRs are great for techno-geeks,” a category in which she laughingly includes herself.  “If we want more information, it’s right there at the click of a button. It’s great that we can get people out on refuge who are electronically bound.”

Still other refuges, such as Aransas in Texas, and Great Meadows  in Massachusetts, are putting QR codes on visitor brochures, kiosks, interpretive panels and printed trail maps. 

MyRefuge is winning enthusiasts, too. Joaquin Baca, who teaches visitors about fisheries in the Southwest, tried the app on a recent visit to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. “One of the cool things about it is it has a GPS feature. You can’t get lost. You can see where you are with respect to features of interest on the map. I thought it was pretty handy.”

In Philadelphia, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum recently jumped aboard MyRefuge, bringing the number of participating refuges to 59, and thrilling visitor services specialist Mariana Bergerson. She says MyRefuge is a great tool “to connect with new audiences, especially the younger generation. If I’m traveling, I like to pull it up.  It’s very convenient if I want to find the closest refuge.”

Geocaching on Refuges

GPS navigation is primarily a work tool on refuges, used by staff – and increasingly, visitors -- to mark the location of everything from eagles’ nests to noxious weeds.  But the play version – geocaching, or, in the case of wildlife refuges, virtual geocaching or earth caching – has had a place on refuges since its introduction at Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge in 2007. Lately, its use has been spreading, too. Rather than hide “treasures” on refuge lands (prohibited) for geocachers to find by their GPS coordinates, staff might leave a written description of a refuge species or feature. Such twists, however, disqualify refuges from being listed on major geocaching sites, so players must discover them on their own.

Desert Refuge in Nevada has two geocaching events planned in May; it’s also looking into using podcasts and smartphone photography, says visitor services specialist Ida Castillo. Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula began virtual geocaching this past year, advertised by a sign out front. 

With the apps have come new challenges. One example: The use of electronic birdsong playback. Several birding apps include this feature, which can be used to help identify birds or call them closer.

Refuge staff worry that audible playback by visitors could disturb or harass birds, especially during nesting season, even causing them to abandon their nests. For that reason, says Jennifer Owen-White, visitor services manager at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, “we ask visitors to use headphones, not to play birdsong out loud.”

Besides, she adds, doing otherwise “is also unethical and rude to other birders.” Imagine you hear and follow a bird’s distinctive sound, she says, only to find out it’s a person playing his smartphone.

Ding Darling Refuge has meanwhile chosen not to post signs against birdsong playback, lest these call attention to the practice, says supervisory refuge ranger Toni Westland. “We feel if we do, it might cause more of a problem,” she says.

There are some reservations about the mobile app stampede. “While the refuge encourages people to leave technology behind and get outdoors,” says a narrator of the Ding Darling iNature Trail, “the refuge rangers also realize it is very difficult for most people to do just that. …”

And while mobile apps may help some people connect with nature, experts caution that apps won’t do the job for all. For the very youngest visitors, in particular, apps may distract from natural surroundings.

So advises the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Fergus Falls, Minn., a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility which teaches more than 60,000 schoolchildren each year about nature. Staff there experimented with having young children use handheld devices to record their discoveries in prairie science class. They soon dropped the idea. “It was too distracting,” says instructional systems specialist Molly Stoddard. “They weren’t observing. [What they saw was] all the screens and buttons…”

What still works best to engage young children, she says: Keep things simple.

At least while you can.  When they’re ready for the siren song of gizmos and smartphones, wildlife refuges will be waiting for them – suitably equipped.