What comes to mind when you think of Detroit? Automobiles? Motown? Professional sports?

Each of those answers is accurate, but you may be surprised to learn that the Motor City is also becoming well recognized for public–private partnerships for conservation and outdoor recreation through the efforts of Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

Not only is Detroit River Refuge the lone international wildlife refuge in North America, it also is one of the few bona fide urban refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Nearly seven million people live within a 45–minute drive of the refuge, which incorporates more than 5,700 acres along 48 miles of the lower Detroit River and western Lake Erie. The refuge focuses on conserving, protecting and restoring habitat for 29 waterfowl species, 23 raptor species, 31 shorebird species, more than 100 fish species and more than 300 bird species.

A sure sign of major conservation progress in this resolutely urban area is that more than 100 public and private partners have come together over the past eight years to clean up an industrial brownfield and transform it into the Refuge Gateway—high–quality wildlife habitat and the possible home of a Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge visitor center.

The Refuge Gateway will serve as a hub for environmental education and outdoor recreation. It also will be a model of sustainability. Everything visitors see and do will teach them how to live sustainably.

For 44 years, from 1946 to 1990, the 44–acre waterfront site housed an automotive brake and paint plant facility. After the facility was closed, the site sat vacant as an industrial brownfield for 12 years before Wayne County acquired the land in 2002 for development as the Refuge Gateway. In 2004, a county–U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service master plan was developed to guide cleanup, restoration and construction work for public–use infrastructure, including a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum–rated visitor center, a school ship dock and public fishing pier, a kayak landing, an innovative storm water treatment system and greenway trails. All cleanup/restoration was completed this fall.

The transformation of the Refuge Gateway can best be described as an extreme makeover. It includes daylighting a creek, restoration of 16 acres of wetlands in a river that has lost 97 percent of its coastal wetland habitat, control of invasive phragmites along 2.5 miles of shoreline, restoration of 25 acres of upland buffer habitat and control of other invasive species on 50 acres of upland habitat.

The Refuge Gateway is adjacent to the refuge’s 410–acre Humbug Marsh Unit. Humbug Marsh is Michigan’s only Wetland of International Importance designated under the Ramsar Convention. Humbug Marsh is ecologically vital to the Detroit River corridor and the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem. It represents the last mile of natural shoreline on the U.S. mainland of the river. Humbug Marsh supports remarkable biodiversity, including 51 fish species, 90 plant species, 154 bird species, seven reptile and amphibian species, and 37 dragonfly and damselfly species. The transformation of the Refuge Gateway expands the ecological buffer for Humbug Marsh.

Nationally, Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge has been recognized by the White House Conference of Cooperative Conservation for its leadership in use of public–private partnerships for conservation and outdoor recreation. Locally, the refuge is helping change the perception from that of a Rust Belt city to one where urban conservation efforts reconnect people to nature, improve quality of life, showcase sustainable redevelopment and enhance community pride.

John Hartig is Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge manager.