“Rivers flow not past, but through us; tingling, vibrating, exciting every cell and fiber in our bodies, making them sing and glide.”

Naturalist John Muir was referring to rivers’ effect on people. But rivers have a similar effect on national wildlife refuges. Rivers make fish, wildlife and refuges sing and glide, too.

“Rivers continue to transform and shape the physical, biological, natural and cultural landscapes using time, water and gravity as the fundamental tools,” says Andrew French, manager at Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge whose acquisition boundary is the watershed of the first national blueway, the Connecticut River.

This Focus section touches on a handful of mighty rivers that are intrinsically tied to refuges: the Mississippi, the Niobrara, the Yukon, the Kuskokwim, the Illinois, the Rio Grande and the nation’s second blueway, the White.

Many rivers vital to the National Wildlife Refuge System are not featured here.

The basin of the 1,200–mile–long Columbia River, for instance, spans seven states and one Canadian province and sustains more than 25 refuges, including 10 in or along the river itself. The Columbia ecosystem is vital to threatened and endangered species, such as the Columbia white–tailed deer, spotted owl, grizzly bear and wolf.

The Tennessee River basin—home to Wheeler and Tennessee Refuges and others—is considered by The Nature Conservancy to be the nation’s most biologically diverse river system for aquatic organisms. It also harbors the highest number of imperiled species of any large basin in North America with 57 fish species and 47 mussel species considered to be at–risk.

The Missouri River basin nourishes at least two dozen refuges from the 2,341–mile–long river’s source in the Rocky Mountains of Montana to its mouth at the Mississippi River in its namesake state.

The Colorado, the Ohio, the Bear, the Klamath, the Sacramento, the San Joaquin, the Minnesota, the James, the list goes on.

While rivers are the lifeblood of refuges ecologically, they are also important to refuges in other ways. And they are central to President Obama’s three–yearold America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) initiative.

Tamara McCandless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service AGO coordinator, says that rivers are important to AGO because they:

  • connect Americans to the outdoors. (Think of water trails on rivers as dissimilar as the Bronx and the Kansas.)
  • provide recreational opportunities, often close to home, for the nation’s 40 million anglers and 24 million paddlers.
  • provide vital habitat and migration corridors for fish and wildlife. Extinction rates for freshwater species are five times higher than for terrestrial species; 69 percent of U.S. freshwater mussel species are at risk of extinction.
  • provide chances for people to improve their community by participating in river cleanups, riparian plantings and river access improvements or volunteering with a river stewardship organization.

“Rivers create opportunities for refuges to connect with the larger watershed and a diversity of other partners—making refuges and our mission more relevant,” says French. “Using a National Blueways System approach to our efforts within the watershed, refuge personnel can facilitate communication, coordination, collaboration and leveraging of resources within the federal family and other watershed stakeholders from the conservation, education, recreation and economic sectors.” For the final word on the importance of rivers to refuges and conservation, though, let us turn to Japanese naturalist Tanako Shozo: “The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.”