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A man and a woman stand in front of the welcome sign at a South Carolina refuge.
Information icon Cindy Dohner, regional director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ Region 4, and Greg Sheehan. He recently became the principal deputy director at the Service. Photo by Kristen Peters

Director: Refuge ‘a natural treasure’

Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina – Ask Greg Sheehan what he thinks about the nation’s wildlife refuges and be prepared to wait for his response.

For Sheehan, principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), something as important as the nation’s 500-plus refuges deserves a measured answer. They are that important.

As he stood under the branches of a dead tree that had succumbed to the ocean at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, Sheehan thought about America’s wild lands – the mountains, the prairies, the beaches that surrender to the tireless tides.

A beach littered with dead trees.
The eclipse passed over the boneyard, so named because salt water has killed the trees that grew too close to the surf at Bulls Bay, Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Kristen Peters, USFWS.

“I don’t know of any other places that allow people such clarity [with nature],” said Sheehan.

One of those wild places: 66,000 acres of coastal forest, sand and wetland comprising Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. The tract, north of Charleston, was in the path of the 2017 solar eclipse – the last bit of North America the eclipse touched during its Aug. 21 diagonal across the continent. Sheehan included the refuge in a two-state visit.

The sky grows dark as the moon blocks light from the sun..
The solar eclipse at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Kristen Peters, USFWS.

He got to the refuge just as the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean, and remained here most of the day. When the eclipse cut a dark path across Bulls Island, on the refuge’s tip, he stood and marveled. A resident of Utah, he’d never seen such a thing.

“It’s a natural wonder,” he said, “located on another natural wonder.”

For the refuge, he said, is a wonder – a place where shore birds congregate, where dolphins roll in the surf and people get a chance to reconnect with this great, green planet.

Sheehan, who’s been with the Service for less than three months, has visited other refuges in a 25-year career in conservation management. He intends to add more to that list.

Cape Romain, he said, is one of the finest he’s seen. Sure, it has forests and dunes and water – lots of water – but it also has the Dominick house, erected nearly a century ago by a wealthy banker who once owned the land that now belongs to America. The home, with thick walls that help repel summer’s heat, adds to the refuge’s appeal, he said.

An historic home on the refuge.
The Dominick house. Photo by Kristen Peters, USFWS.

“It’s a gem,” he said. “It’s another reason to visit the refuge.”

Nearly 3,000 people visited Cape Romain just to witness the eclipse. It was one of six refuges in the Southeastern United States where the eclipse was total, where the land went temporarily dark.

The eclipse at Cape Romain was marvelous, magical, momentary. It was gone as soon as it arrived, moving out to sea and leaving North America behind.

Leaving behind, too, a refuge that serves as a wild reminder that we share this land with other creatures, Sheehan said.

“As you know, each refuge has unique attributes,” Sheehan said. “But they all have a way of providing natural places to the public.”

And, sometimes, providing a spot to watch a miracle in the heavens.

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