Connecting People with Nature
Northeast Region

Earthforce Makes a Difference at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

“It is real good that we are doing this because we are the ones that will be living through the environmental transition…” Says Olayinka Lawal (15), a youth volunteer from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s partner organization, Earthforce. Founded in 1994 Earthforce has spent the last 14 years providing youth with the knowledge and  skills to address environmental issues within their community, fostering leadership ability through civic involvement and hands on learning experiences in nature. Several days ago, a group of local students from Earthforce visited the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia to help control an infestation of invasive mile-a-minute (Polygonum perfoliatum), learn about the natural world and have a little fun.

Earthforce students canoeing at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Mike E. McMenamin
Earthforce students canoeing at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Mike E. McMenamin

The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is a veritable oasis of biodiversity, nestled within the asphalt arms of interstate 95 and neighboring Philadelphia International Airport. Also adjacent to the refuge are several SEPTA train lines, an oil tank farm, a “Superfund Site” landfill and miles of urban expanse. Despite its unlikely location, John Heinz is still home to many species of animals such as wild turkey, deer, muskrat, fox and over a half a dozen types of amphibians including the endangered coastal leopard frog and the threatened red-bellied turtle. Additionally, more than 300 different species of birds have been sighted at the refuge (80 of which traditionally use the refuge for nesting), the majority of which are migratory and rely heavily on this island of green as a pit stop for vital rest and nutrition during their journeys. Despite the value that this area has for wildlife, what may be even more important is the idea that it represents. Donavan Duckett (15), another Earthforce volunteer, says: “I enjoy learning about my community, about animals and about how the world works”. Places like John Heinz, even if they are too small to provide significant ecological services to the human community, offer children an increasingly rare opportunity to develop a hands-on relationship with the world in which they live.

Earthforce leaders, Samantha Goldman and Vera Figueiredo, along with representatives from the Philadelphia Zoo and refuge manager Gary Stolz enthusiastically guide the youth crew through the refuge, stopping often to pick up frogs, learn about plants such as poison ivy and stinging nettle and talk about valuable habitat types such as vernal pools and tidal marshland. Of course, the day really started when everyone put on their lifejackets and climbed into canoes for a well deserved afternoon on the water, exploring and connecting with nature up close and personal.

There is a clear take home message from today’s adventure at the refuge that may even surpass the benefits of a day spent removing invasive weeds and learning about wetlands ecology. These young individuals had the chance to immerse themselves in the natural world, to get dirt under their fingernails and water in their shoes. These are perhaps things that many of us try to avoid but if we hope for our children to someday take on the responsibility of preserving these natural resources then it is important for them to interact with and truly know the land they are living on. In the end it really does not matter how many piles of mile-a-minute these students scrape up or how many fun facts they remember about vernal pool ecosystems; days like this are for creating a connection, a relationship with nature that provides our children with an understanding of their world that they can get no other way than by truly living in it.

Story by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intern Chris Poulin.

Last updated: July 1, 2010
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