I enjoyed reading Director Dan Ashes thoughts on wilderness as part of this Refuge Updates focus on the topic. While wilderness stewardship is a passion of mine, what I am very concerned about today is making sure our urban refuge initiatives are successful.
As we went through the deliberations leading up to the Conserving the Future conference in Madison, WI, in 2011, no topic sparked more interest than our conversations about relevancy in a changing America. We recognized that our nation is more urban today, with 80 percent of the population living in cities.
The nation is also becoming more ethnically diverse as the baby boom generation is aging. While our traditional hunting and angling partners remain crucial to conservation, their numbers reflect a smaller percentage of the overall population. If we want to grow support for wildlife conservation, then we have to go where the people are: We have to go to the cities.
The good news is the Refuge System is already present in many cities. There are more than 100 national wildlife refuges within 25 miles of cities with more than 250,000 people. The Refuge Systems investments in these places havent been much different than in more rural places.
As we implement Conserving the Future, the Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative implementation team has described new standards of excellence that more fully illustrate the potential for urban refuges. The team is working on performance metrics that will allow us to track the effectiveness of new investments in urban refuges. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has piloted innovative new partnerships where we can have an urban presence even when we dont own the land.
The Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative isnt something fun to do when we get done with our important conservation work. It is as important as anything we are doing as a Service. If the Service doesnt work with others to develop a connected conservation community in urban centers to complement the efforts of our longstanding partners, then we will fail in our mission. No matter how important our work, if people dont know or simply dont care about it, we cannot be successful.
Twentysome years ago, I managed the refuges in Rhode Island and Connecticut. They were small, surrounded by lots of cities and lots of people. It was easy to see how much of the natural world had been lost. People there cared about their refuges, and they knew how special they are. They let their elected officials know, and those folks cared, too. I remember Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island as a great champion for the Refuge System. I remember him working in a bipartisan way with Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut to protect Arctic National Wildlife Refugeand wilderness.
To further forge that kind of spirit, we have lots of work to do.