Bringing Conservation to Cities

By John Hartig, manager Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge
June 2016 - Friends Forward

Detroit River Refuge breaks ground in 2013 for its visitor center.
Photo: Tina Shaw/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The cleanup and recovery of the Detroit River represent one of the single most remarkable ecological recovery stories in North America," writes John Hartig.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

If conservation can be brought into the industrial heartland, it can be done elsewhere.
That’s the essential lesson from Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

The cleanup and recovery of the Detroit River represent one of the single most remarkable ecological recovery stories in North America. Out of the recovery has come the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, one of 14 priority urban wildlife refuges in the country that will  bring conservation to cities and make  nature part of everyday urban life.  

The concept of urban wildlife refuges represents a new model for conservation – one that both restores habitats for fish and wildlife in an urban area through innovative public-private partnerships and provides a blueprint for bringing conservation to new urban audiences.  

Detroit River Refuge extends along 48 miles of the lower Detroit River and western Lake Erie, and focuses on conserving, protecting and restoring habitats for 30 species of waterfowl, 113 kinds of fish and more than 300 species of birds.  The refuge owns or cooperatively manages 5,834 acres of unique habitats, and partners with entities like Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the City of Windsor and Essex Region Conservation Authority in Ontario, Canada. 

Detroit River Refuge has worked with more than 300 public and private organizations and leveraged over $43 million for conservation projects since 2001. Of particular significance is the Friends organization, the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, which has helped raise funds, increase outreach and form partnerships.

As other communities consider how to enhance conservation within their boundaries consider some key lessons:

  • Establish a clear vision that is relevant and engaging. For example, compare  “We will be a leader in space exploration” and “We will put a man on the moon in 10 years.” The latter presents a clear and compelling challenge.
  • Build partnerships at all levels and don’t be afraid to experiment. These partnerships will have to undertake cooperative planning and project management, share resources, seek external funds and showcase conservation through creative outreach. Start with partners who can be inspired to support simple projects like planting trees, removing invasive species or other achievable goals. The consistent involvement of citizens and grassroots organizations builds local ownership and community support.
  • Place a priority on outdoor experiences that can lead to fresh thinking about urban residents’ relationship to the land.
  • Make nature experiences part of everyday urban life by providing outdoor learning and stewardship opportunities as well as health and fitness activities in city parks, state parks and greenway trail systems.
  • Build a record of conservation success and celebrate it frequently and publicly.
  • Whenever possible, quantify the economic benefits of the conservation successes to help attract future partners like businesses, foundations and others. See the Refuge System Banking on Nature reports for examples.
  • Involve the public to develop a sense of place and instill local responsibility for stewardship. City dwellers are often receptive to participating in service learning and stewardship experiences in their own communities.
  • Recruit and train board members who can be catalysts and champions for change.


We need to reconnect people with nature as part of a long-term strategy to inspire individual respect, love and stewardship of the land.  This will help foster a more informed citizenry that actively supports and understands the value of conservation.

In addition to his refuge manager role, John Hartig is the author of Bringing Conservation to Cities: Lessons from Building the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, 2014.