8 Ways Wildlife Refuges Make Life Better

Rediscover your nature at a national wildlife refuge

We know COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is impacting RV travel plans right now. For a little inspiration we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.

Our lives are brighter because of national wildlife refuges. Even people who’ve never set foot on a refuge benefit from these lands and waters conserved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How could that be? Come along for a look.

Here are some key ways national wildlife refuges improve the lives of everyday folks.

1. Health

SAbine National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We are hard-wired to need contact with nature. A large body of research shows that getting outdoors—on national wildlife refuges, for example—can improve peace of mind and physical well-being. Many refuges reinforce that health-and-nature connection by hosting family walks, runs, bike tours, even special events, to get people moving outdoors. 

2. World-Class Recreation

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Millions of people enjoy outdoor recreation each year on national wildlife refuges—where they are excited to spot wildlife while they refresh their minds and bodies. Some visitors enjoy birding, hiking, paddling, wildlife viewing, or nature photography. All these activities offer people a chance to unplug from the stresses of modern life and reconnect with their natural surroundings.

3. Wildlife Conservation

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National wildlife refuges are dedicated to conserving America’s rich fish and wildlife heritage. Just five decades ago, bald eagles, alligators, grizzly bears, California condors, Louisiana black bears, and whooping cranes all were at risk of extinction. Refuges have helped—and continue to help—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service save iconic American species (and many lesser-known ones) by providing healthy habitat on which they depend. For example, Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge supports American alligators.

4. Storm Resilience

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National wildlife refuges help to lessen the impact of natural disasters on local communities. More than 150 coastal refuges buffer cities and towns from storm surges. For example, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, wetlands at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge blunted the saltwater surge toward North America’s largest petrochemical refinery complex near Houston.

5. Access to Green Space

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With four-fifths of Americans living in cities or suburbs, access to green space isn’t a given. Fortunately, there is a wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of most major cities.

6. Reduced Fire Risk to Communities

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Refuges help reduce risks from catastrophic wildfires. Refuge fire managers routinely burn, cut, or chemically treat overgrown brush, trees, and logging debris that can fuel wildfires. On Florida’s Merritt Island, home to the Kennedy Space Center as well as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, refuge managers work to lower the risk of fire.

7. Biodiversity

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think of nature as a web, with each part depending on another. Take one part away, and other parts suffer. Biodiversity is “the variety of living things in a given place—whether a small stream, an extensive desert, all the forests in the world, the oceans, or the entire planet.” Refuges encourage biodiversity. Among the most biodiverse refuges are Santa Ana, Lower Rio Grande Valley, and Laguna Atascosa. Their south Texas counties contain 1,200 plant species, 300 butterflies, and 700 vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish).

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Economic Benefits

National wildlife refuges add to the nation’s economic well-being. For every $1 Congress appropriates to run the Refuge System, wildlife refuges generate nearly $5 in local economies through visits for recreation. In fiscal year 2017, recreational spending by 53 million visitors to national wildlife refuges helped generate about $3 billion in economic activity and support 43,000 jobs.   

Lower Swanee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

Banking on Nature: Record Numbers Visit National Wildlife Refuges

A record number of more than 53 million people visited America’s national wildlife refuges

53.6 million people visited national wildlife refuges during fiscal year 2017 (2017-2018) which had an economic impact of $3.2 billion on local communities and supported more than 41,000 jobs. The figures come from a new economic report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service titled Banking on Nature. The report is the sixth in a series of studies since 1997 that measure the economic contributions of national wildlife refuge recreational visits to local economies.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Wildlife Refuge System is a network of 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts located in all 50 states and five U.S. territories. There is a national wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of most major metropolitan areas, and national wildlife refuges provide vital habitats for thousands of species and access to world-class recreation, including birding, photography, and environmental education.

The report contains economic case studies of 162 national wildlife refuges and other information. Following is information relating to four of these refuges.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge supports one of the most diverse and unique assemblages of habitat and wildlife within the Southwest. The 57,331-acre refuge is located south of Socorro at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Eleven miles of the Rio Grande bisects the Refuge. The extraordinary diversity and concentration of wildlife in a desert environment draws people from around the world to observe and photograph wildlife. A comprehensive visitor services program provides opportunities for people to connect with nature and enjoy the American great outdoors.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 306,000 recreational visits in 2017 which contributed to the economic effect of the Refuge. During October through May, the Refuge conducts interpretive van tours and interpretive hikes for the general public and also offers over 100 interpretive programs during the annual Festival of the Cranes held annually the week before Thanksgiving (37th annual Festival of the Cranes is November 20-23, 2019).

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor recreation expenditures were $15.8 million with non-residents accounting for $15.5 million or 98 percent of total expenditures.

Green jay at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is located at the southern tip of Texas next to the Gulf of Mexico. Wildlife finds a haven within the refuge, the largest federally protected habitat remaining in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Subtropical forests, coastal prairies, freshwater wetlands, and a barrier island support a mix of wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Laguna Atascosa has recorded an impressive 410 species of birds drawing birders from around the world. Several tropical species reach their northernmost range in south Texas as the Central and Mississippi Flyways converge here.

Curved bill thrasher at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 485,000 recreational visits in 2017. Interpretation activities include bird tours, bird walks, and habitat tram tours. Visitor recreation expenditures were $30.0 million with non-residents accounting for $23.0 million or 77 percent of total expenditures.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to preserve the unique qualities of the Okefenokee Swamp. The Okefenokee is the largest refuge in the east and includes over 407,000 acres. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has many designations including being a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance, National Water Trail, National Recreation Trail, an Important Bird Area, and is a proposed World Heritage Site.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Okefenokee is considered the largest intact freshwater wetland in North America. The Refuge is made up of a variety of habitats, and includes over 40,000 acres of pine uplands that are managed for longleaf pine around the swamp perimeter and on interior islands. Other habitats include open prairies, forested wetlands, scrub shrub, and open water (lakes). The Refuge has three primary entrances and two secondary entrances for visitor access.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 724,000 recreational visits in 2017. Visitor recreation expenditures were $64.7 million with non-residents accounting for $59.8 million or 93 percent of total expenditures.

Plain chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge consists of 2,088 acres along the banks of the Rio Grande, south of Alamo in the Lower Rio Grande Valley where subtropical, Gulf coast, Great Plains, and Chihuahuan desert converge. There are over 400 species of birds, 300 species of butterflies, and 450 types of plants. The refuge was established in 1943 for the protection of migratory birds and is a great place to visit for birding and draws in people from all to look for birds like the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Jay, and Altamira Orioles.

Great kiskadee at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 12 miles of trails, visitor center, suspension bridge, and 40 foot tower for visitors to explore. Year-round educational programs, seasonal tram, and birding tours, special events, summer programs and more that are offered to the public.

Green heron at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 196,000 recreational visits in 2017 which contributed to the economic effect of the Refuge. Visitor recreation expenditures were $2.2 million with non-residents accounting for $1.3 million or 58 percent of total expenditures.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare