A common lament among wildlife watchers is a lack of wild public land to observe and photograph birds and other wildlife. Back yards sustain many of us most of the time, but occasionally we long to see first-hand uncountable flocks of waterfowl, herds of bison, or prairie birds that exist on unbroken expanses of native grasslands.
Fortunately, there exists across this country a vast network of protected habitats, where wildlife and people intersect. It is the ultimate wild back yard. The National Wildlife Refuge System celebrates a century of conservation this month, and I fear the Refuge System is one of the government's' best kept secrets. It includes more than 540 refuges on 95 million acres of federal land -- "your land, my land, from California to the New York island," to paraphrase Woody Guthrie.
First one in Fla.
The first refuge, Pelican Island, was established on March 14, 1903, by then-President Theodore Roosevelt. It was a mere five acres of mangrove thickets off the east coast of Florida. Its creation symbolized the national outrage at the indiscriminate slaughter of herons, egrets, spoonbills and pelicans for the millinery trade. At the time, feathers of these birds were in demand to decorate women's hats.
Roosevelt went on to establish 51 more federal bird reserves and four national game preserves, the seeds which bloomed into the present National Wildlife Refuge System.
National Wildlife Refuges provide unparalleled outdoor activities -- including fishing, hunting, environmental education, wildlife observation and photography -- making them special places for all Americans to connect with nature. Many refuges also offer opportunities for nature hikes, birding tours and wildlife drives. According to the U.S. Fish & amp; Wildlife Service, which administers the refuge system, more than 35 million people visit National Wildlife Refuges annually.
In every state
"The U.S. Fish & amp; Wildlife Service is using the centennial of the Refuge System to put the welcome mat out to every American. There is a wildlife refuge in every state and one within an hour's drive of most cities," said Steve Williams, Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Wildlife refuges are unique because we have struck a balance between the needs of wildlife and people. Wildlife refuges offer unprecedented opportunities for wildlife observation, school education programs, and fishing and hunting."
For example, traveling wildlife watchers will find the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to Philadelphia International Airport. It seems an unlikely home to Pennsylvania's largest remaining freshwater tidal wetland and breeding birds that include least bitterns, marsh wrens, and several species of rails.
At the other extreme are remote sites, such as the rolling grasslands on the J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge in north-central North Dakota, the only place I've ever seen Baird's and LeConte's sparrows.
My most memorable moments at National Wildlife Refuges, though, are a bit more dramatic than fleeting glimpses of two nondescript native sparrows.
In Alaska I spent two hours watching brown bears catch and filet salmon on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. In Michigan, tens of thousands of ducks and geese darkened the autumn sky at the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. And as a college student, on my first adventure trip far from home, I kayaked among alligators in Georgia's Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Maybe someday I'll get to see the vast herds of caribou that inhabit America's last unspoiled wilderness, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Funding from stamps
The National Wildlife Refuge System is one of America's great treasures. It is funded in part by sales of "migratory bird hunting stamps," more popularly known as "duck stamps." In addition to providing funding for the refuge system (98 percent of the $15 cost of a duck stamp goes toward buying more wetland habitat), a current duck stamp also serves as a free pass to any refuge that charges an admission fee. Duck stamps are available at post offices and many outdoor stores.
If you've never visited a wildlife refuge, plan a trip this year. You won't regret it. For more information about the National Wildlife Refuge System, visit www.fws.gov.
NOVA's "Deep Sea Invasion" (April 1, 8 p.m.) investigates the consequences of unleashing an invasive exotic plant, and Scientific American Frontiers examines animal communication in "Calls of the Wild" on (April 1, 9 p.m.). Dates and times may vary locally.