Sustaining a Wildlife Refuge by Connecting to the Community
On a bright, crisp, fall day the light goes on in a first time visitor’s mind:
“Oh! So…for birds, this place is like the rest areas that we have on the freeway? I get it now. They must have places like this along their way or they’ll run out of energy.”
A ranger responds, “And migrant birds are not simply on vacations. These journeys are all about survival. Entire species are threatened when we don’t preserve a place like this.”
Today’s “place like this” is the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, almost 1,000 acres of woods, pond, marsh, and meadow dedicated to wildlife conservation. The refuge is a crucial habitat for both resident and migrant birds. Without these habitats to use as a stopover, the migrant birds would be in great survival danger.
The refuge works to create vital green corridors for native pollinators and birds in the region.
Known as America’s First Urban Refuge, the refuge property line quite literally borders the busy I-95 freeway and the expansive Philadelphia International Airport. An incredible 1.7 million people live within just 10 miles of the refuge. Land is scarce, and wildlife have to adapt to constantly shrinking habitats.
A major mission of the refuge is to serve as a prominent ambassador for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by educating communities, working in communities, and breaking down access barriers to the refuge.
The refuge works closely with the Audubon Society and the Student Conservation Association to conduct education programs at local schools and support a community vacant lot regeneration program in nearby neighborhoods. The groups have worked with partners to connect the refuge trail system to the citywide trail systems, which run through the urban core of communities in the greater Philadelphia area. Many residents have been astounded by the amount of nature in their neighborhood.
Refuge manager Lamar Gore, “Many people in cities in the US are growing up with little to no connection to the outdoors. Our mission is to protect wildlife and habitat, yes, but in urban communities we have another standard which is planting seeds in the lives of our community, to help people see and experience their own connection to wildlife, the outdoors, and what value that brings to them.”
Part of this work is funded by a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant from FedEx, but labor is in short supply as well. That’s why recently as part of FedEx Cares Week, about 25 local FedEx team members visited the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge to roll up their sleeves and do some hard volunteer work.
The FedEx volunteers built a section of almost 200 feet of trail, and also planted a truckload of native species in the park.
Tara Paul, who works in customer service at FedEx Trade Networks, grew up in the area. “I made little birdhouses for this refuge when I was in middle school. It feels so good to have our company set us up with the opportunity to give back to a place that is special to me but also special to so much wildlife.”
The new native plants will attract native butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. This habitat will battle invasive plants and will support the entire ecosystem, from the tiniest insects to those beautiful migrant birds that cruise overhead, searching for a place to take a break.
A day’s work for some, helping preserve a lifetime for some species.