It was early in the summer. There was only one way to find out just how outdoorsy my new co-workers were — organize a weekend adventure! Suffice it to say, I was not disappointed.
A short drive from Washington D.C., we arrived at Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The trail around the lake is not very long, but we moved slowly along the shore, stopping to take in our surroundings and trying to identify the smaller birds that endlessly fluttered about — swallows whose feathers shimmered in the sunlight, a phoebe sallying to catch insects over the water. Frogs less than an inch in length hopped out of our way to safety from hiking shoes.
Looking over the still water, I remember chuckling to myself, noticing a Great Blue Heron standing still as a statue in the shallows, and a small boat just beyond carrying two anglers. I wondered, which party would bring home more fish today?
I was incredibly impressed by the landscape at Patuxent. I later realized I had actually visited other refuges in the past — Lake Mattamuskeet, a birding hotspot in coastal North Carolina; Sevilleta, which spans prairie, desert, woodland and Coloradan plateau along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. I surprised myself by how little I knew of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and considering the current media flurry regarding one in particular, I thought I would share some little known facts about these resources that you can visit!
My co-workers and I that day were only a party of five, but according to a 2015 report, a staggering 47 million people visited the more than 560 wildlife refuges in 2014 alone. Thanks to the immense popularity of these precious lands, in FY 2011, spending related to this visitation supported employment for 35,000 people, and generated nearly $343 million in tax revenue at the local, county, state and Federal levels.
“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, […] there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Ecotourism is not the only important activity in the National Wildlife Refuge System. During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt established the first refuge, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, in 1903. To this progressive, visionary outdoorsman, it was evident that Americans were using natural resources, including wildlife, at too fast a pace, and was monumental in setting aside lands as National Parks as well. The National Wildlife Refuge System lands are actively managed for conservation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (US FWS).
The collaborative approach employed by US FWS and its partners is an impressive exemplar in conservation and land management. Notably, some refuges hold agreements with Native American communities, for example, the Burns Piute Tribe near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, have permission to harvest plants of cultural importance. Also in Oregon, refuge managers have achieved cooperative agreements with ranchers. US FWS personnel and ranchers who neighbor refuges have the foresight to design management plans that will be productive to the ranch, while also protecting threatened and endangered wildlife, such as the Sage Grouse. The benefits range widely, and even include improvements to water quality and mitigation of wildfire potential.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and these partnerships have found a solution that fulfills both economic need and natural resource conservation.
Like the lands held by Bureau of Land Management and National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges are rich resources, providing natural playgrounds and hunting grounds for all Americans to enjoy and benefit from in a myriad of ways, not just for today, but for our children and many future generations to come.