Each unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System is established to serve a statutory purpose that targets the conservation of native species dependent on its lands and waters. All activities on those acres are reviewed for compatibility with this statutory purpose.
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum was established for the purposes of preserving, restoring, and developing the natural area known as Tinicum Marsh. In addition, the refuge was established to provide environmental education and an opportunity to study nature. Today, the refuge leads by example in providing environmental education and recreational programming in Philadelphia and Delaware Counties.
The Lenape people are the first known inhabitants of the area that is now known as Philadelphia. For generations, these indigenous people stewarded the land we know as Tinicum Marsh. The Lenape called this land Tennakon Minquas or “islands of the marsh”. It was a marshland that spread for more than 5,000 acres across the landscape. The Lenape lived off the plentiful bounty of the marshland, fishing, hunting, and gathering in the around the marshes until the mid- 1600’s when European settlers arrived. These settlers drained and filled the marshes to provide grazing and farming land. Over the years, as the Philadelphia region grew, the marshes continued to disappear.
By the 1950’s, Tinicum Marsh had gone from more than 5,000 acres to only 200 acres. A non-tidal area of 145 acres, adjacent to the eastern end of Tinicum Marsh, was donated by the Gulf Oil Corporation to the City of Philadelphia in 1955. This area, administered for the benefit of wildlife and people, was known as Tinicum Wildlife Preserve. The areas of open water along with the adjacent heavily vegetated tidal wetlands, formed an ideal habitat for thousands of migratory birds.
In 1969, threats to Tinicum Marsh continued to rise with the proposed routing of Interstate 95 through the marsh and the construction of a landfill. Local residents and organizations began to take action, as they had seen enough habitat destruction done to the marshlands. They worked together to begin a long series of legal injunctions, public hearings, and extraordinary efforts that stopped both the highway’s rerouting and the landfill’s operation.
In 1972, Congress passed legislation, authorizing the protection of up to 1,200 acres and established Tinicum National Environmental Center. In 1991, the refuge was renamed posthumously to honor Senator John Heinz and his commitment to the conservation of the marsh.