Refuges Earn High Marks with Visitors

Saltgrass landscape at Harney Lake on Malheur Refuge, OR
Canoeing in Upper Mississippi River Refuge, IA
Credit: USFWS

An overwhelming percentage of surveyed visitors to national wildlife refuges in 2010 and 2011 were favorably impressed with the recreational opportunities, education and services on these public lands, according to a national survey released on May 15.  Some 90 percent of respondents gave consistent high marks to all facets of their refuge experience.

The peer-reviewed survey, commissioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and designed, conducted, and analyzed by researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey, evaluated responses from more than 10,000 adult visitors surveyed at 53 of the country’s 556 national wildlife refuges between July 2010 and November 2011.

The National Wildlife Refuge System, managed by the Service, is the nation's premier system of public lands and waters set aside to conserve wildlife and wildlife habitat. Refuges protect thousands of species; more than 400 also are open to the public and are popular recreation sites, noted for their hunting and fishing, paddling and hiking, environmental education programs and wildlife observation. More than 45 million people visited national wildlife refuges in 2011.

“When you visit a refuge and see for yourself  the amazing web of life this natural landscape protects, it’s hard not to come away impressed,” said Service Director Dan Ashe. “You begin to understand what a treasure we Americans have at our doorstep. For most people, that appreciation deepens when they learn what staff are doing to conserve their wildlife heritage. We’re thrilled that visitors also recognize and appreciate the efforts of Refuge System staff to make their visits rich and enjoyable.”  

Most Popular: Wildlife Observation, Photography, Hiking, Auto Tours

Of survey participants,

  • 91 percent reported satisfaction with recreational activities and opportunities;
  • 89 percent reported satisfaction with information and education about the refuge;
  • 91 percent reported satisfaction with services provided by refuge employees or volunteers; and
  • 91 percent reported satisfaction with the refuge’s job of conserving fish, wildlife and their habitats.

Some survey participants also volunteered enthusiastic comments, such as this one: “Refuges make me aware that I am a part of the American experience and not just an observer. Nowhere else do I feel such a deep sense of connection with the land, the plants, and the wildlife. Visiting a refuge is truly a spiritual experience.”

Among the most popular refuge activities visitors reported were wildlife observation, bird watching, photography, hiking and auto-tour-route driving.  Most visitors also reported viewing refuge exhibits, asking information of staff or volunteers and visiting a refuge gift shop or bookstore.

Visitors reported varying support for the use of alternative transportation, such as boats, buses or trams, to get from point to point inside a refuge. Some refuges are exploring these methods to reduce their carbon footprint. Most respondents (65 percent) said they would be likely to use a boat on refuge waterways or an offsite parking lot that provides refuge trail access. Just over half (51 percent) said they would be likely to use a bus or tram that runs during a special event. Most said they were unlikely to use a bus or tram that takes them to different points on a refuge or a bike share program.

Many (59 percent) respondents identified themselves as repeat refuge visitors. More than a third of visitors (42 percent) said they lived within 50 miles of a refuge they visited.

The survey was conducted under the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, which mandates federal agencies to undertake periodic reviews of program performance. 

Findings from a second phase of the survey, covering another 25 refuges, are expected in 2013. The Service will use survey results to help guide refuge transportation, facilities and services planning. USGS social scientist Natalie Sexton was the lead researcher on the report. The survey is available here.