Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge is participating in a two-year study that could help it become a more valued urban community asset.

Part of the central Michigan refuge is within the Saginaw city limits. Two hundred acres of its 10,000 acres border a low-income neighborhood hard hit by high unemployment and associated socioeconomic challenges.

“How could the refuge reach these underserved populations to go fishing or take a walk in a nice, serene setting rather than walk by vacant lots and boarded-up houses?” refuge manager Steve Kahl has asked himself.

Some answers might come from the Federal Lands Livability Initiative (, a project of the Federal Highway Administration, the Department of the Interior and The Conservation Fund to assess and improve the livability of communities adjacent to protected lands. Besides Saginaw/ Shiawassee Refuge, the project includes Sweet Home, OR/Willamette National Forest; Calhoun Falls, SC/Russell Dam and Lake; and Grand Lake, CO/Rocky Mountain National Park.

Friends of Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge president Chuck Nelson, who teaches community sustainability at Michigan State University, sees an important distinction between Saginaw/ Shiawassee and the other three locales: “All the other livability assessments are at places where part of the mission is to welcome the public. None has a [wildlife conservation] mission like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service … Most of the refuge is bordered by signs that say, ‘Unauthorized entry prohibited.’ ”

Nelson, Kahl and Midwest Region refuge roads coordinator Brandon Jutz see potential for the project to focus fresh attention on livability and accessibility. For instance, nearby Saginaw Township has a new hiking-biking trail built mostly on an old railroad bed. “Another quartermile spur would take people to [the refuge’s] Woodland Trail,” says Kahl.

“The city is trying to deal with shutting down community parks they can’t maintain, and we’re trying to get kids outdoors,” says Jutz. “How can we help them maintain a connection to the outdoors?”

The Livability Initiative’s first step was a three-day assessment tour of the refuge and surroundings last September. It included people from all local cities and townships; the refuge and its Friends group; The Conservation Fund; and the Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Conservation Fund is scheduled to recommend action steps for a local team to consider this spring. The recommendation report is expected to highlight possible funding sources.

Visitors bureau CEO Annette Rummel says conversations so far have prompted community residents to begin seeing the refuge as an opportunity rather than a burden on the tax base. The refuge recently acquired a former golf course that includes a large pond. Kahl says children from the neighborhood already are asking to borrow refuge tackle to fish in the pond.

“One of my priorities is to make the refuge valued as a community asset,” says Kahl, who sees the Livability Initiative as important to Saginaw on several levels. “If we are a site where people want to live, that’s where employers want to establish themselves.”

Michael Hanley, chairman of the Saginaw County Board of Commissioners, is looking for ways to “weave the refuge more tightly into our community … as a resource to improve the quality of life.”

Hanley has high hopes.

“If we are building pathways into the refuge,” he says, “we could build some pathways of imagination. Many of these kids have never seen a college campus, never been in the wild.”

Jutz believes the Livability Initiative could be a blueprint for other refuges and a catalyst for changes “that go way beyond trails and transportation.”

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