Before Theodore Roosevelt designated Pelican Island in Florida as the first national wildlife refuge in 1903, there was a place now known as the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. A 59,000-plus-acre oasis of mixed-grass prairie converging on a series of forested and sheer-faced mountains rising from the Great Plains, the refuge was established as a forest preserve in 1901. It was designated as a national game preserve in 1905, and soon came to play a vital role in saving the American bison and conserving other wildlife species. In 1936, it became part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

But the land is not just a reminder of an emerging national conservation ethos that has so successfully honored the region’s natural heritage. It’s also a showcase of the economic value of American public lands.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2013 Banking on Nature report, recreational visitation to Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, which was operating on a budget of $3.9 million, produced $174 million in economic effects while supporting some 1,050 jobs. That is about $44 generated for every $1 in budget expenditures.

Home to more than 800 plant species, 240 bird species, 36 fish species, elk, white- tailed deer and a thriving bison herd, the refuge is a popular destination for rock- climbing, hunting, fishing, birdwatching, hiking and wildlife photography.

The refuge maintains a robust environmental education and interpretation program, a network of scenic roads and trails, more than 8,500 acres of designated wilderness, a 22,000-square-foot visitor center, two campgrounds, a backcountry camping area, four picnic areas and 13 lakes that provide fishing for largemouth bass, sunfish, crappie and channel catfish.

“Not only do we strive to provide valuable contributions to the conservation of wildlife such as bison, elk and the endangered black-capped vireo,” says refuge manager Tony Booth, “we also work very hard to offer outstanding outdoor recreational opportunities. And we are extremely proud that the refuge is one of the most popular attractions in the region.”

Indeed, in 2015, it was named Best National Wildlife Refuge in a USA Today Reader’s Choice poll, and this year it was named Best Place to See Wildlife. The refuge draws 1.7 million visitors annually. And visitors bring great economic contributions.

“When the weather’s good, lots of folk come out to the refuge – and that’s good for business,” says Joe Maranto, owner of nearby Meers Store and Restaurant (“Home of the World Famous Meers Burger”). “Be here on a Saturday or Sunday night, and I’ll have a line of 100, 150 people because I’m plumb full.”

Maranto, an 85-year-old walking encyclopedia of frontier history, takes pride in his Texas longhorn cattle herd – and the longhorn burgers his customers enjoy – that may not have been possible without Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Since 1927, the refuge has maintained a Texas longhorn cattle herd that has preserved the characteristics of the breed. Each year, staff members must round up and cull surplus bison and longhorns to prevent overgrazing. Except for the 25 percent of the surplus bison that are donated to tribes, the refuge sells the animals through public auctions. These events attract spectators and buyers from across the nation. The local Chamber of Commerce provides meals for the auction participants.

“Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is a real treasure in southwest Oklahoma,” says Jacob Russell, director of the Lawton-Fort Sill Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We are very fortunate to have the refuge in our backyard.”

For his part, refuge manager Booth says, “we’re very impressed and proud of the outstanding local support for this refuge. I hope we can continue to contribute to the public appreciation of our conservation mission while remaining a significant contribution to the local economy.”

One Google reviewer said of the refuge: “It is a great way to get away from it all for a day. I love going down here to hike, fish and eat at Meers.”

That’s more than testament to the value of a place that conserves nature and feeds the human soul. That’s money in the bank.


Ben Ikenson is a New Mexico-based freelance writer.