An urban refuge? No thanks! Thats what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told a group of citizens in the 1970s when they asked the Service to help stop impending habitat destruction on the fringe of the Twin Cities by establishing a national wildlife refuge along the Minnesota River floodplain.
It took Congressional action (and insistent activists) to get Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge established in 1976. Similar narratives had played out on both coasts, where citizen efforts led to the establishment of Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Refuge (1974) and John Heinz Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia (1972).
We in the Refuge System know that connecting with people is vital to our efforts to save dirt and provide for the fish and wildlife we care deeply about. But we have struggled to understand the role urban refuges might play in forging these connections.
The first urban refuges were viewed by some in the Service as curiosities, a natural result of 1970s environmental activism. Others saw them as money sinks, diverting staff and funds from the serious work of wildlife conservation.
Over the past two years, as the Service renewed its vision for the Refuge System and studied how refuges can remain relevant to America, a close examination of the future of urban refuges has been essential. Conserving the Future recognizes that the nation is changing and that our conservation efforts must evolve. More than 80 percent of Americans live in urban/suburban communities, and the Service values the role urban refuges play because of their innovative education programs, their robust volunteer and Friends programs, and even their wildlife conservation achievements. There are now 17 refuges within 20 miles of Americas 50 most populous urban areas.
In recognition of this issues importance, the Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative implementation team was established immediately after last summers Conserving the Future conference. The team is charged primarily with:
- Defining the Services objectives in managing urban refuges: What are the elements of an excellent urban refuge? Where do we fall short of success? How can we do better?
- Establishing an urban refuge initiative that relies on cooperation and coordination rather than land acquisition. By building partnerships with existing parks, zoos and natural areas, can our technical assistance help connect people, wildlife and wildlife refuges?
- Steering the establishment of new urban refuge partnerships in approximately 10 urban areas (large and midsize).
The team will be talking with partner organizations, seeking input from demographers and social scientists, and conducting virtual meetings with managers and staff at existing urban refuges to achieve these tasks. No longer are urban refuges considered unnecessary diversions from our conservation mission. Rather, we believe these refuges are important opportunities to build on the natural connections that Americans have to wildlife and to the work we do.
Tom Worthington, Midwest Region deputy refuge chief, is a member of the Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative implementation team. Scott Kahan, Northeast Region refuge chief, is a cochair of the team, which will focus on recommendation 13 of the Conserving the Future vision.