Friends and neighbors of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum have spoken up forcefully in defense of conservation and green space in their Philadelphia community—and they’re making a big difference.

It started in June 2012 when a resident of the Eastwick neighborhood noticed a surveyor. The curious resident called refuge manager Gary Stolz and Ross Pilling, who works for the Keystone Conservation Trust, a nonprofit environmental organization. Together, they learned that Korman Development Co. wanted to re–zone 35 acres next to Heinz Refuge for 722 apartments and 1,034 parking spaces. Not only that, a City Council hearing on the re–zoning proposal was scheduled within days.

“We worked around the clock and showed up with an army of partners put together in a couple of days,” recalls Stolz. “We had almost 100 people representing refuge Friends, the Sierra Club, Audubon, universities and planning groups, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and civic associations.” Two dozen people testified against the re–zoning. Eventually, the re–zoning bill was withdrawn.

“A small but significant victory for the coalition!” wrote Debbie Beer, a member of the Friends of Heinz Refuge who spearheaded the 2012 creation of the Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition. Pilling and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia helped the coalition become an officially recognized community organization. The Keystone Conservation Trust obtained a grant to fund experts in engineering, economics and environmental impact.

The land in question is part of a 128–acre parcel adjacent to the refuge that is subject to development.

Developing a Strategy

The coalition is using the time offered by the withdrawn re–zoning proposal to develop a strategy for the future of the land that goes beyond its opposition to one apartment complex. Nearby challenges that affect the community and the refuge include frequent flooding, two Superfund sites with landfills, toxic emissions from oil refineries and jet fuel dumping from Philadelphia International Airport. In 1972, intense lobbying by a different Eastwick community group led to establishment of Heinz Refuge rather than providing more land for the airport.

“The community wants to protect this green space,” says Stolz. “The group is coalescing around sea–level rise, contaminants from the landfill and flooding issues.” Stolz would like to see the land become a wooded buffer for the 300 species of migratory birds and other wildlife on the refuge, with an accessible trail from an existing regional rail station to the refuge visitor center. “That would create potential for every schoolchild to come by mass transit to visit and directly engage with nature,” he says. He has been meeting with city officials and senses a “groundswell coming up in favor of conservation.”

Beer says the coalition has generated strong, unprecedented relationships between the refuge and the community.

“Many of the local residents here just never walked into the refuge even if they only lived a half–mile away. This particular issue brought us an instant connection,” she says. “The Friends got to know the teachers and the principal of the neighborhood school, and we had programs for the fifth grade throughout the entire academic year.”

The coalition also held meetings at the local library, prompting library staff to invite Friends to present a program about the refuge. Several Eastwick residents have become Friends.

“It’s all about connections. One person meets one person and then the next person,” says Beer. “Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition is committed to planning and advocating for an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable future for the community.”

Or, as Stolz says, “people in the community have now taken ownership.”

Karen Leggett is a writer–editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.