Surprise! You own a national wildlife refuge.
More than 500 of them, in fact. We all do, because our national wildlife refuges are public lands that are operated and maintained to protect our country’s natural resources thanks to U.S. taxpayers and President Theodore Roosevelt, who designated the first wildlife refuge in Florida in 1903.
Today, there’s at least one refuge within an hour’s drive of most major American cities. Usually for less than $10 per car, people can visit a refuge from dawn until dusk, where they can hike, swim, watch birds, learn about trees and plants, picnic, and in some places, hunt, fish, and camp. Where else can you find a bargain like that?
Wildlife refuges vary according to their geography. In the south, you’ll find peaceful coastal backwaters and bayous that provide important spawning areas for fish. Shallow ponds and marshes in the Upper Midwest provide the water migrating waterfowl need when they make their long journeys from the top of North America to the tip of South America. In the Northeast, wetlands and forests offer havens to songbirds, waterfowl, whitetail deer, and a multitude of small game, while the west’s grasslands and mountain streams create the perfect habitat for elk, trout, sandhill cranes and even bears. Go in the spring and fall when migrating birds fill the skies, in the winter, when the stark beauty of the landscape becomes most apparent, or in the summer, when the days are long and you can spend the most time prowling about.
Here’s a look at three of my favorite national wildlife refuges.
Chincoteague – I’ve been going to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia for more than 30 years! It’s only a three-to-four hour drive from my home in suburban Washington, DC, which has made it perfect for long weekend get-aways as well as week-long vacations. The refuge is spacious but not overwhelming. Its 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, marsh, and maritime forest provide the perfect stopover for migratory birds like Canada geese, snow geese, and many shore birds on their way up and down the East Coast. I’ve seen tiny spring peeper frogs, big horseshoe crabs, dolphins, bald eagles, rabbits, black snakes, great blue herons, snowy egrets, and all manner of shorebirds. Chincoteague is also famous for the small ponies that move between the refuge and the adjacent Assateague National Seashore. Misty of Chincoteague, the famous pony story beloved by children across the U.S., was set here. Today, it’s not unusual to see dozens of small horses munching grass if you’re driving through the refuge to the beach, or biking around the refuge’s many trails.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – My special attachment to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is that I’ve worked to protect its pristine coastal plain from oil drilling for more than 20 years. The entire refuge is special for its extraordinary landscape and the variety of animals you can find there, ranging in size from the pygmy shrew to the bowhead whale. And don’t forget the polar, grizzly, and black bears, plus wolf, wolverine, Dall sheep, moose, muskox, and the animal that has come to symbolize the area’s wildness, the free-roaming caribou. Thirty-six species of fish occur in Arctic Refuge waters, and 180 species of birds have been observed on the surrounding lands.
Eight million acres of the Arctic Refuge are already designated Wilderness, which means that they remain in their natural condition and free of industrial development. In fact, one important reason why the Arctic Refuge was established was the fact that this single protected area encompasses an unbroken continuum of arctic and subarctic ecosystems. If you were so inclined, you could traverse the boreal forest of the Porcupine River plateau, clamber through the rolling taiga uplands, cross the rugged, glacier-capped Brooks Range, then follow different rivers across the tundra coastal plain to the lagoons, estuaries, and barrier islands of the Beaufort Sea coast, all without encountering a shred of civilization as we know it.
That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t find people. The refuge encompasses the traditional homelands and subsistence areas of Inupiaq Eskimos of the arctic coast and the Athabascan Indians of the interior.
Many conservation organizations, scientist groups, and Native American tribes are working hard to protect the refuge’s coastal plain from oil drilling and minerals exploitation. That’s why, during the 50th anniversary of the passage of the protective Wilderness Act, thousands of concerned citizens are urging President Obama to protect the Coastal Plain as wilderness. You can, too; get more information here.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge – I always loved the name of the “Ding” Darling refuge, and finally decided to go to Sanibel, Florida, where it’s located, to take a look. Sanibel is a subtropical barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico and home to the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the U.S. The refuge provides important habitat to over 220 species of birds, including spectacular waders like storks, plus manatees and even American Crocodiles. This refuge got its great name from J.N. Darling, a former director of the U.S. Biological Survey who was both an avid hunter and fisherman and a cartoonist who became alarmed at the loss of wildlife habitat and the possible extinction of many species. His cartoons ultimately helped raise awareness nationwide about the importance of establishing wildlife refuges to protect birds from overhunting and ecosystems like estuaries from encroaching development. At this refuge, you can bicycle or motor around the Wildlife Drive at a leisurely pace, getting out when the spirit moves to climb up viewing towers to see birds and other animals while admiring tracts of hardwood forests called “hammocks.” Look for strangler figs and other tropical trees. You can also walk the 4 mile, round-trip Indigo trail. Be on the look out for alligators, night herons and white ibis.
No matter which wildlife refuge you explore, follow these five tips for a great visit:
1) Contact the wildlife refuge before you visit for up-to-date information on access, special activities, weather conditions and more.
2) Watch wildlife from a distance for your safety as well as theirs. Bring binoculars for a close-up view without endangering yourself or the creatures you are looking at. Many refuges offer guided tours with long-distance spotting scopes to get you as up close and personal as you’d ever want to be.
3) Take special care around denning animals or animals that are protecting their young. Even a peaceful duck will give you a hard time if you get too close to its ducklings.
4) “Wake up with the birds.” Arrive in the early morning when wildlife are most active and you can observe wonderful feeding rituals.
5) Take your own bottled water and snacks in reusable containers so you leave no trash behind.
If you get the bug to visit other refuges around the country, consider buying a year-long pass that will save you money in the long run. If you are 62 years or older, you can buy a lifetime pass to access all national wildlife refuges in the U.S. for only $10. Bonus: the same pass will also give you access to national forests, national parks, and other public lands. You may as well visit them. You own them, too!