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Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

Rugged and Remote: Seney National Wildlife Refuge Turns 80

December 10, 2015

Dusting of snow at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan. Photo by USFWS.
Dusting of snow at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan. Photo by USFWS.

Today we mark the 80th birthday of Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Even though it is remote, this beautiful refuge on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is both welcoming and wild.

Seney National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1935 and is located in the east-central portion of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Halfway between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, the refuge includes Seney Wilderness Area, which makes up 26% of the 95,238-acre designation. Seney Refuge is a place of excitement, serenity and wonder. With a rich mosaic of ecosystems that support an array of wildlife and plant communities, the refuge is a great place to watch wildlife and experience nature.

Fire is an essential part of what created, and continues to create, this landscape.The Seney Wilderness Area, located within the refuge, represents a relatively intact fire regime, with benchmark stands or "pine islands" of mixed red pine and eastern white pine. The matrix of the demonstration area is wetland, and consists of one of the largest and best examples of a patterned fen in the Lower 48 states. These rare, ground-water fed habitats can take up to 10,000 years to form naturally.

Nearly 80 miles away from refuge headquarters is Whitefish Point, a 53-acre tract on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that is renowned for its concentrations of birds during migration. Each year thousands of raptors, passerines and waterbirds funnel through the point, stopping here to replenish energy reserves before or after venturing across Lake Superior. The area is recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area for birds migrating between the U.S. and Canada and offers a 1,200-foot accessible boardwalk that leads visitors to the tip of the point beach area.

If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of black bear, moose, wolf, fisher, or black-backed woodpecker during a visit to Seney. The large size, and relatively unimpacted condition, of the refuge enables us to provide benefits to the ecosystem on a huge scale. In addition to the sheer size of the refuge, we amplify this landscape-level approach by working with our conservation partners on adjacent lands that are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, National Park Service, and The Nature Conservancy. This close proximity to other land management organizations drives our partnerships and relevancy to surrounding communities.

Seney Refuge has not always appeared so wild. This is a land that was once heavily logged, burned, ditched, drained and cultivated. Despite repeated attempts, the soils and harsh conditions of this country did not provide a hospitable environment for sustained settlement or agriculture. What was viewed as a loss by early 20th century entrepreneurs became a huge gain for the wildlife, natural resources and the people of Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula.

Build it and they will come?

Not always. When the refuge was established in 1935, our emphasis as conservationists was largely rooted in creating and managing waterfowl habitat to get more ducks on the landscape. The simple thought back then? If you build it, they will come. With that in mind, an intricate system of dikes, water control structures, ditches and roads were built on the eastern unit of the refuge. However, Seney never produced as many ducks as early managers had hoped. Today, these pools are managed to conserve vital habitat for common loons and trumpeter swans. Osprey, bald eagle, beaver, muskrat, and river otter also are commonly seen utilizing the area.  

Even though not all the early management decisions were on target at Seney, biologists and managers made great strides to reduce poaching and promoted the importance of fire as a natural part of the landscape, long before their contemporaries. C. S. Johnson was the first refuge manager and spent 14 years bringing the area back from the destruction of full-scale logging and failed agriculture. Before becoming refuge manager, this Michigander was the Civilian Conservation Corps construction foreman.

Today, the refuge prides itself on using science to monitor management and further understanding of the ecosystems and the disturbances that shape the landscape. Current habitat management focuses on retaining critical ecosystems and habitat types, maintaining refuge biodiversity, and maintaining or restoring ecosystem patterns and processes.

That said, the refuge is managed on a gradient of conservation in the eastern portion, restoration in the center and preservation in the western portion where the 25,000-acre Seney Wilderness Area and the Strangmoor Bog National Natural Landmark remain relatively unaltered. Today, various techniques are being used to restore the mixed pine forests of the refuge, including selective timber harvests and prescribed fire. Birds like the northern flicker, whip-poor-will, and Cape May warbler use mixed pine forests along with countless other species of plants and animals. Although the restoration of these forests will be slow, it is our goal to restore these ecosystems to near pre-European settlement conditions.

Most people visit Seney Refuge to watch wildlife or attend an educational program. The hub for education and interpretation programs through much of the year is the refuge visitor center, open daily May 15 to October 20. In addition to the seven-mile Marshland Wildlife Drive that takes visitors through the wetland pools and pine island forests, Seney offers 10 miles of trails for hiking and cross country skiing. Visitors can explore the backcountry via bicycle on the system of roads or take a canoe or kayak down the Manistique River. The refuge also welcomes hunters and anglers, as well as berry and mushroom-picking enthusiasts. Seney’s remoteness also provides visitors with an opportunity to explore and discover true wilderness and backcountry.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the refuge, dedicating their time, energy and passion for Seney by assisting with a wide array of projects, including helping to staff the visitor center. Learn more about the refuge volunteer program and Seney Natural History Association:

Besides the roads you drive on when visiting the refuge, you may see some of the Civilian Conservation Corps craftsmanship at the stone-built water control structures and bridges. They also built some of the buildings remaining today. Lumber for refuge construction was often from timber that was cut and milled on site. The refuge also hosted workers from a nearby conscientious objectors camp in 1944. After about a year, the program was shut down.

For 80 years, Seney National Wildlife Refuge staff have been balancing managing the land for wildlife, as well as for people. Whether you are in the frontcountry of the refuge and see the man-made pool system and roadways that were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps or are out away from everything in the wilderness, the refuge offers people challenges, beautiful views and amazing opportunities to watch wildlife. Plan your visit and discover Seney for yourself:

Learn more about Refuge Manager C. S. Johnson:

Historic photo by USFWS.

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

This series of articles is inspired by the long history of land managers and biologists who protect, restore and conserve our National Wildlife Refuge System lands. As our midwest refuges reach milestone anniversaries, we will highlight what makes them special. Look for historic photos, lesser known biological and geological tidbits and reflections from the people who know them best - refuge field staff.

Learn more »