A Talk on the Wild Side.
By Margaret Everson, Principal Deputy Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Mid-October brings much to savor: crisp air, turning leaves and the sprouting of Halloween goblins on lawns. Here’s something else that belongs on your things-to-celebrate-this-fall list: national wildlife refuges.
This week—National Wildlife Refuge Week — is a great time to reflect on how much we all owe these wondrous lands and waters. It’s worth taking a moment to learn why these are the most important public lands you may never have heard of.
National wildlife refuges, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are public lands and waters set aside to conserve wildlife. Since 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt established the first wildlife refuge on Florida’s Pelican Island, refuges have provided vital habitat for thousands of American species — including bald eagles, bison and whooping cranes. By helping protect refuges, we are supporting America’s abundance and diversity of wildlife – biodiversity that’s vital to the nation’s economy and way of life.
National wildlife refuges also offer access to world-class outdoor recreation. Fishing, paddling, hiking, environmental education and wildlife observation are popular activities on many of the system’s 567 refuges. Hunting, carefully regulated to ensure sustainable wildlife populations, is another popular historic use. Under the leadership of President Trump and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, the Department of the Interior (DOI) this year completed the single largest effort to expand fishing and hunting opportunities at refuges, totaling 1.4 million acres that are newly open or expanded for additional opportunities. Three hundred and sixteen refuges now allow fishing and 381 now allow hunting. More than 101 million Americans — 40 percent of the U.S. population age 16 and older — enjoy wildlife-related recreation, including hunting and fishing.
Snow geese, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico Photo by Diana Robinson
These recreational activities generate tremendous value in our economy, benefiting local communities. National wildlife refuges provide over $7 billion per year in economic output for local economies and support more than 48,000 jobs, according to a recent DOI report.
President Trump understands the significant value that national wildlife refuges provide to local communities and the vital role of these places to protect and conserve wildlife and wildlife habitats. Refuges situated along vulnerable coastlines and rivers help buffer neighboring cities and towns against flooding. During the three days following Hurricane Florence in 2018, Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina took on almost 100 billion gallons of water from the Pee Dee River, sparing some communities from intense flooding. Refuges also help purify our air and water and reduce erosion and risk of wildfire. To support win-win outcomes, refuge staff work with private landowners — 48,000 of them in 2018 — to encourage conservation on neighboring lands.
Finally, refuges boost people’s physical and mental health. How? By hosting family walks, teaching kids to fish and holding birding lessons and other events to get people moving outdoors. They also build bridges and trails to connect nearby communities with green space.
As the country grows increasingly urbanized, the national wildlife refuge system’s 101 urban refuges are partnering with community groups and schools in San Diego, Albuquerque, Houston and many other cities to connect people with nature and increase their access to green space. John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia helps residents convert empty lots to pollinator gardens. Many refuges, including Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Florida and Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, help schools create wildlife-friendly gardens.
National wildlife refuges aren’t hard to find. There’s at least one refuge in every state and every U.S. territory and within an hour’s drive of most major cities. Maybe it’s time you visited one this fall as you give thanks for national wildlife refuges and celebrate National Wildlife Refuge Week.