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Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina is a kayaker’s paradise. Photo by Eric Horan, USFWS.

Refuges reach out to urban visitors

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina — The hiker was in bad shape. Overweight and exhausted, she had crumpled into a sitting position along the Ibis Pond Trail at the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Her face turned red, almost purple. Sweat poured in torrents. Her breathing was labored. Heat stroke seemed imminent under the searing sun with temperatures nearing 100 degrees.

Monica Harris and Nancy Fernandez — mercifully — happened by in their U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service SUV. They ferried the woman, her father and sister to safety.

Two women in uniform chatting in front of a marsh.
Nancy Fernandez and Monica Harris share a moment at the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

The recent encounter with the family from New York underscored the perils, and possibilities, faced by an evolving Fish and Wildlife as the flora, fauna and land conservation agency seeks new constituents. Increasingly, the nation’s wildlife refuges welcome non-traditional visitors who aren’t carrying shotguns or fishing poles. They’re discovering the nearby wonders of the system’s “urban wildlife refuges” in or near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New Orleans, Louisiana; Palm Beach, Florida; San Francisco, California; and Savannah, Georgia.

These refuges are critical for the Service’s, and the nation’s, future. Roughly 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in cities. Yet most of the nation’s refuges are located well beyond the bright urban lights and given over to rural pastimes like hunting and fishing.

In addition, most cities lack green spaces to play, exercise, birdwatch or simply commune with nature. And their demographics — white, black, Hispanic, Asian — are different than most rural communities.

An employee on the bank of a pond looking to a hawk in the blue sky.
Nancy Fernandez gazes over a pond at the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

“We struggle to remain relevant to urban citizens,” reads a 2011 Fish and Wildlife report. Popular refuges translate into more visitors, public support and congressional appropriations.

“It’s incredibly important to the Fish and Wildlife Service that it has an active constituency with political clout that can go before Congress demanding that their natural values are protected, that the Endangered Species Act is protected and that the Service is adequately funded to achieve its mission,” said Rena Borkhataria, director of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of Florida.

“Struggle to remain relevant”

Sandwiched between Savannah and Charleston along the busy South Carolina coast, the Pinckney refuge is a wildlife and recreational haven. U.S. 278 funnels tens of thousands of beachgoers and homeowners daily past the refuge entrance and onto nearby Hilton Head. Summertime traffic backs up almost to Interstate 95, 16 miles westward.

The entrance sign to the national wildlife refuge includes illustrations of American oyster catchers.
Entrance sign at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Ken Lund, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Once owned by Maj. Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a state legislator, diplomat and military aide to George Washington, the plantation-turned-private-hunting-preserve was donated to the Service in 1975. A popular spot along the Atlantic Flyway for migratory birds, the refuge is nearly two-thirds salt marsh and tidal creeks. The Intracoastal Waterway runs along one side; Mackay Creek the other.

Its 14 miles of hiking and biking trails afford prime bird-watching opportunities – ibis, egrets and herons in the spring nesting season; brightly colored painted buntings through the fall. Saltwater fishing is permitted year-round. A one day lottery hunt for white-tailed deer occurs each November.

A man and woman ride bikes down a sandy path.
Visitors biking at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina. Photo by USFWS.

Private groups, including the local Disney resort, run nature walks. And the island’s south end fishing pier and boat ramp are popular with anglers, kayakers and Hispanic soccer players.

“It is very popular. We get local folks, joggers, bikers, photographers, families from out of town who just want to get outside,” said Harris, visitor services manager for the Savannah refuge complex that includes Pinckney. “It’s more like a park than a refuge. It would be a great urban refuge to show people who we are and what we do.”

In 2015, roughly 134,000 people entered Pinckney’s main gate, according to traffic data compiled by Harris. 2017 should more than double that amount. Nearly 15,000 people will have biked on Pinckney this year.

“It has ridiculously crazy potential,” Harris added, as fat raindrops and too-close thunder chased visitors from Ibis Pond into their cars.

Pinckney isn’t an urban refuge despite its appeal to city dwellers and proximity to Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah and other towns. The Service set out six years ago to create a slew of “urban wildlife refuges” spread geographically across the country. The criteria were few: the refuges must be within 25 miles of a population of at least 250,000 people.

“We face challenges in connecting with all Americans,” reads an October 2011 Service report entitled Conserving the Future: Wildlife Refuges and the Next Generation. “We struggle to remain relevant to urban citizens who have competing priorities and few outside experiences; we strain to find ways to connect with young Americans who are technologically fluent, but deficient in nature experiences; and we toil to recruit and retain a more inclusive workforce that reflects the diversity of America.”

In 2015, $1 million was allocated to four newly designated urban refuges. Two — Bayou Sauvage in New Orleans and Loxahatchee in Palm Beach County, Florida — were designated as “priority” urban refuges in the Southeast.

The sun dips below the horizon turning the sky pink.
Sunset at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Garry Tucker, USFWS.

The Savannah refuge, 15 miles west of Pinckney and just across the river from the bustling port town, was designated a “tier two” urban refuge, but didn’t receive any additional money. (Savannah and Pinckney are two of the seven units within the Savannah NWR complex.)

The goal, according to an October 2015 missive from the Service, is to target cities “where we have an opportunity and a responsibility to advance public understanding, appreciation, and knowledge of the functions of ecosystems and the benefits of their management for fish, wildlife, and people.”

“A people’s refuge”

It’s a bit of a sea change for the Service, whose traditional “priorities” are hunting, fishing, saving endangered species and maintaining habitats for waterfowl and migratory birds. Visitation isn’t allowed at some refuges that support particularly sensitive species and habitats. Bolstering refuges’ “biological integrity” is oftentimes of paramount importance.

And the National Park Service, with many iconic and popular public lands in or close to major cities, gets the lion’s share of publicity, visitors and federal money. (NPS and FWS are both agencies of the U.S. Department of Interior.) Roughly 331 million people visited the national park system last year – nearly seven times as many as those who visited refuges.

Five birds on the bank of a pond looking for a meal.
Four American white ibis and two great blue heron on the banks of a pond at Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jeff Gunn, CC BY 2.0.

Debate, though, is ongoing about how public the refuges should be.

“It’s in the Service’s mission to provide opportunities for recreation to pretty much all of society,” said Borkhataria who, as a graduate student, worked at Loxahatchee. “Urban refuges are extremely important. When you get to actively experience these natural spaces, you become more invested in preserving them.”

Borkhataria generally gives the Service credit for its urban outreach. The numbers bear her out. Loxahatchee, for example, welcomed 339,000 visitors in 2014. Last year, 378,000 people visited. Bayou Sauvage nearly doubled its visitation in that time to 89,000.

Pinckney gets evermore popular.

The rain had stopped. A baby alligator slowly crossed the road. The nature-lovers, including two Latinas and an African-American guy, returned to the rookery trail.

A small alligator in the tall grass.
A baby alligator at the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

“When you think of a national park, you think of people and neat places. When you think of a refuge, you think of wildlife,” Harris said. Refuge. “Our biggest challenge is to figure out how to balance people and nature while being accessible to all.”


Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist, (404) 679-4028

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