By Angelina Yost

Less than two years old, the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program is reaching audiences who were unaware of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It’s happening in industrial cities like Detroit and Yonkers, NY. It’s also happening on lands not close to large urban centers, like J.N. “Ding” Darling Refuge, FL, and Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, MI, both of which have embraced the urban program’s Standards of Excellence.

For decades, the Detroit River was one of North America’s most polluted rivers. Today, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge are creating gathering places for people and wildlife along that river and western Lake Erie. “That cooperative conservation is helping provide an exceptional outdoor recreational and conservation experience to nearly seven million people in the watershed,” writes refuge manager John Hartig. “That, in turn, is helping develop the next generation of conservationists and sustainability entrepreneurs.”

Although Wallkill River Refuge on the New Jersey/New York border is more than an hour from a large city, refuge staff is committed to engaging new audiences and willingly travels to participate in a community renewal partnership project in Yonkers. The partnership is reclaiming the industrialized Saw Mill River, creating and restoring riverside parks, and connecting the river to school pollinator gardens. The partnership also is working with a natural resources-oriented agricultural high school science class on community and refuge conservation projects. The idea is: High school students will mentor middle school students, who will mentor elementary school students. At year’s end, the high schoolers will earn a certificate from Wallkill River Refuge, recognizing their skills training and building their resumes for conservation careers.

“Ding” Darling Refuge in southwest Florida is taking the first Standard of Excellence, Know and Relate to the Community, to heart. When refuge staff members learned that cost and the presence of uniformed employees deterred local Spanish-speaking residents from visiting the refuge, they designed free events to make the refuge more inviting. They collaborated with a Spanish-language radio station to help craft messages and promote events like Family Fun Day and Art in Conservation Day. The station provided one free advertisement for every paid advertisement and was recognized as a major event sponsor. The events drew record numbers of Hispanic visitors.

Shiawassee Refuge has not been identified as one of the 101 urban refuges within a 25-mile radius of a population center of more than 250,000 people. That didn’t stop Steve Kahl, manager of the central Michigan refuge, from being a champion of the fourth Standard of Excellence, Be a Community Asset. A small part of the 10,000-acre refuge is near a low-income, high-unemployment neighborhood in Saginaw, a city of about 50,000. Kahl asked himself: “How could the refuge reach these under-served populations to go fishing or take a walk in a nice, serene setting rather than walk by vacant lots and boarded-up houses?” In response, the refuge hosts fishing events for local residents and is working with the community in a Federal Lands Livability Initiative [see January/February 2015 Refuge Update: http://1.usa.gov/1Nq49Ja].

Other communities — from Houston to Anchorage, Providence to San Diego and a dozen places in between — are finding creative ways to provide opportunities for urban residents to discover, appreciate and care for nature in their cities and beyond.

Hartig says it well: “It is critically important that a high priority be placed on reconnecting urban residents with nature as part of a long-term strategy to inspire individual respect, love and stewardship of the land/ecosystem to be able to develop a societal land/ecosystem ethic for sustainability.”

Angelina Yost is the Refuge System urban coordinator.