Of the 24 Conserving the Future recommendations, No. 13 might be the most ground–breaking. It introduced a novel concept: the urban wildlife refuge initiative.

Recommendation 13 has three parts.

First, it mandates defined standards of excellence for the dozens of existing urban national wildlife refuges. Second, it mandates establishment of a framework for creating new urban refuge partnerships. Third, it mandates a new refuge presence in 10 demographically and geographically varied cities by 2015.

The Conserving the Future Urban Wildlife Refuge Initiative implementation team—co–chaired by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region deputy regional refuge chief Tom Worthington, Northeast Region regional refuge chief Scott Kahan, and Headquarters visitor services and communications chief Marcia Pradines—is addressing those mandates.

The standards of excellence are a work in progress. Once approved by National Wildlife Refuge System leadership, the standards will articulate best practices related to community engagement; cultivating partnerships; financial resources and leveraging funding; sustainability and leading by example; urban access to refuges; dispelling urban fears and myths about wildlife; making the Service an authentic member of the community that promotes conservation beyond refuges; and more.

“Just like conservation must happen at a landscape level, so must engagement,” says Pradines.

“This isn’t about creating new refuges or places, or developing a program on our own. It’s about the Service partnering with the community.”

The implementation team has met with more than a dozen of the nation’s leading conservation organizations and with colleagues from other Service programs to discuss a framework for new partnerships. “Without exception, they are all keenly aware of the need to reconnect and restore conservation relevance with the growing urban population,” says Worthington.

A new Refuge System presence in 10 cities, also a work in progress, will “foster a more informed citizenry that actively supports and understands the value of conservation,” says Kahan.

Training Scheduled

A key component of the refuge urban presence effort, says Pradines, will be “nurturing staff culture to understand how to work in communities that are diverse in generations, wildlife values and ethnicities. We know how to work with people who already value conservation and love wildlife. How do we reach and impact the others without sounding preachy and with effectiveness?”

The implementation team has scheduled a training of staff from existing urban refuges, as well as partners, next fall at the National Conservation Training Center to discuss the urban wildlife refuge initiative.

One topic likely to emerge is exactly how the urban concept fits into the Service mission. The initiative does not call for the establishment of new urban refuges, but it does not dismiss the idea, either.

“We know that the strategic growth of the Refuge System will be guided—very correctly—by biological criteria, criteria that by and large would not put a very high priority on lands or waters in urban settings,” says Worthington.“We also know there are rare and extraordinary circumstances where a refuge in an urban context can have societal and System–wide values that overshadow their strictly biological contributions ... In those rare and exceptional situations, the Service will look favorably at the possibility of establishing a refuge in an urban area.”

That said, Worthington is quick to praise biological successes at existing urban refuges, particularly salt marsh recovery at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Refuge, trout spawning “in the shadow of the Mall of America” at Minnesota Valley Refuge, and the overall ecological benefit of Silvio O. Conte Refuge in New England.

“Urban refuges aren’t just for people,” he notes.