Wildlife Refuges — Not Just for the Birds! Serving up a taste of America’s history

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worker. Courtesy USFS.

America’s National Wildlife Refuges — 549 of them, scattered throughout the 50 states and U.S. territories — are best known for the wildlife they protect: thousands of species of animals, birds, reptiles, fish, wildflowers, and trees. What’s less well known is that many refuges also offer a glimpse into America’s past — encompassing the story of our land beginning with the native people who lived here long before the first European settlers, and continuing through the major events of our nation’s history.

This is the second of our summer-long “Great Refuges” series featuring different refuges each month.

Seeing this history firsthand is a great reason to visit, and this second in our series of stories on “Refuges Within Reach” focuses on some of the places where history and wildlife combine to make a memorable trip.

The National Wildlife Refuge System includes more than 2,000 historic structures, a whopping 16,000 archaeological sites, and 2,200 different museum collections. These and other cultural resources found on refuges offer a unique opportunity to learn about how people have interacted with the landscape and its resources over literally thousands of years.

The refuge system itself would not exist in its present-day form if it weren’t for a major historic event: the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. At the height of the twentieth century’s worst economic crisis, the CCC put millions of unemployed men to work on refuges as well as in national forests, national parks, state parks and other locations. Creation of the CCC began a hugely important chapter in conservation history.

The CCC built the infrastructure of nearly 50 refuges and restored thousands of acres of land — accomplishments that are even more meaningful as the refuge system undertakes a stimulus-fueled “green jobs” agenda of restoration projects designed to help America recover from the current recession.

Check with the refuge before you leave home to learn about visitor hours, and to find out what special events and interpretive programs may be offered during your visit. For details and directions, check out the interactive map on the refuge system website.

Below is a list of just a handful of historic refuges that I’d recommend visiting. I hope you will share your own historical favorites with us, too.

John Hay National Wildlife Refuge
Newbury, NH
Phone: 413-548-8002, ext. 111 or 603-763-4789, ext. 4

John Hay National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. Photo by David A. Blohm, Courtesy NWRA Photo Library.One of the nation’s smallest refuges, the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge is the former estate and summer home of John Hay, Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, who lived from 1838 to 1905. Hay, who co-authored a 10-volume Lincoln biography, also served as Ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of State (1898-1905) under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. A distinguished poet, novelist, journalist, businessman, and diplomat, Hay managed the Open Door Policy toward China and helped arrange for the construction of the Panama Canal.

Located 102 miles northwest of Boston, the John Hay refuge was established in 1987 and the historic buildings and their grounds and gardens, also known as "The Fells", are managed by the refuge’s “Friends” group. The estate includes a 16-room Dutch Colonial mansion and an alpine garden, and tours and other interpretive activities are available from Memorial Day through Columbus Day

The remainder of the 164-acre refuge is managed for migratory birds and resident wildlife by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The John Hay refuge also protects nearly a mile of undeveloped shoreline along New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee.

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
Sudbury, Mass.
Phone: 978-443-4661
E-mail: fw5rw_emnwr@fws.gov

Great Blue Heron eating large fish in Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Massachusetts. Photo by Ken Andrews, Courtesy USFWS.Located just 20 miles west of Boston, the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1947 to provide nesting, resting, and feeding habitat for migratory birds. Birdwatching is still a major reason to visit the refuge’s 3,600 acres of freshwater wetlands along the Concord and Sudbury rivers. But it is impossible to visit the refuge without being immersed in the great events of America’s history that took place here, as well. Paddling a canoe or kayak through the refuge along the Concord River, you may pass below the Old North Bridge — the site of America's birth that is now managed by Minute Man National Historical Park.

The refuge’s landscapes also inspired the thoughts of environmental philosophers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. When you visit Great Meadows, you can still see the landscapes and wildlife — including nesting ducks, red fox, muskrats, weasels, beaver, raccoons, and cottontail rabbits — that inspired Thoreau’s writing, and can plan a side trip to the shores of nearby Walden Pond, now protected as a Massachusetts state park.

Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Oyster Bay, Long Island, N.Y.
E-mail: longislandrefuges@fws.gov
Phone: 631-286-0485

Even though the Oyster Bay refuge is primarily a marine sanctuary established to protect migratory birds, it is part of a public lands complex that has great historic significance—not only to the nation, but to the National Wildlife Refuge System itself.

Located on Long Island just 45 miles from New York City, Oyster Bay’s waters and marshes surround the National Park Service’s Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, home of Theodore Roosevelt—the nation’s 26th president and the founder of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Sagamore Hill was Teddy Roosevelt’s home from 1887 until his death in 1919, and served as the “Summer White House” during his presidency from 1902 to 1908.

“TR” was an avid observer of the natural world, and his detailed observations about the rich natural diversity of Oyster Bay serve as a guide for today’s scientists as they investigate the changes to the ecosystem over the last century. The only remaining commercial oyster farm in New York State operates on the refuge, and 90 percent of the oysters harvested in New York come from the refuge's waters.

Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. Courtesy USFWS.Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge
Warsaw, Va.
Phone: 804-333-1470
E-mail: fw5rw_evrnwr@fws.gov

Located 56 miles northeast of Richmond, Va., and 114 miles south of Washington, D.C., the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge is situated in the heart of an area that has been important to human communities since long before the first white settlers arrived in Jamestown on Virginia’s Atlantic coast in 1607. Established in 1996, the refuge is the newest of a complex of four refuges that protect wetlands and uplands along the Rappahannock and its major tributaries.

The Rappahannock River has nurtured native peoples, America’s earliest colonists, and Revolutionary War heroes, and continues to sustain their descendants. Archeological and historic sites are abundant on both sides of the river. The 18th century Bristol Iron Works was located adjacent to the refuge's Toby's Point Tract. The Leedstown Resolves, a 1766 protest against the Stamp Act, was signed near the refuge's Mothershead Tract. When you visit the refuge, you can still see old pilings from the days when steamboats plied the river with goods and passengers bound for the Port of Baltimore.

Along with the rich history of the Rappahannock, the refuge offers Virginia’s largest wintering roost for bald eagles, as well as a haven for shorebirds, songbirds, raptors, and marsh birds during the spring and fall migration seasons. Outdoor enthusiasts visit the refuge for canoeing, kayaking, wildlife photography, hunting and fishing.

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Suffolk, Va. and northeastern North Carolina
E-mail: greatdismalswamp@fws.gov
Phone: 757-986-3705

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia and NorthCarolina. Courtesy USFWS.The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which spans the southeastern border of Virginia and the northeastern border of North Carolina, is a vast forested wetlands containing some of the largest remaining Atlantic white cedar woodlands to be found anywhere. The refuge’s 111,000 acres include the 3,100-acre Lake Drummond, named for the North Carolina governor who discovered it in 1665.

The white cedar and cypress forests that once covered the area have played a major role in its history — and in current efforts to protect and restore the area’s unique ecosystem. In 1763, George Washington visited the area and organized the Dismal Swamp Land Company, to drain and log portions of the swamp. The company’s founders used enslaved people to dig ditches to drain the swamp, farm the drained land, and cut timber. Before the American Revolution, slaves also began building canals from Lake Drummond, one of which still bears George Washington’s name.

The dense underbrush of the Great Dismal Swamp provided refuge to runaway slaves — some historians estimate the number to be in the thousands — some of whom established communities within the swamp. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was the first refuge to be officially designated as a link in the “Underground Railroad Network to Freedom” in 2003.

Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge
Havana, Ill.
Phone: 309-535-2290
E-mail: emiquon@fws.org

Wildflowers in Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois. Courtesy of USFWS.Located at the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois Rivers 200 miles southwest of Chicago, and 128 miles southeast of Davenport, Iowa, Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge was established to restore the historic floodplain of the Illinois River valley, and the habitat it provides to migratory birds, fish, and wildlife.

In addition to providing lake, forest, prairie, wetland, and marsh habitat, Emiquon Refuge is rich in Native American history. Long before the first European settlers pushed westward, Native Americans found all they needed to survive in this area. The Dickson Mounds Museum overlooking the refuge is a wonderful place for families to learn about Native American culture and its dependence on the biological resources found in Emiquon’s lakes wetlands, meadows, and forests.

Emiquon offers boating, fishing, and birdwatching opportunities, as well as a half-mile-long accessible trail for refuge visitors in wheelchairs. The refuge can be reached from State Highway 24 from Peoria or State Highway 136 from Havana, Illinois.

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, which is a stopover for migrating waterfowl such as wood ducks. Photo by Dave Menke, Courtesy USFWS.DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge
Missouri Valley, Iowa
Phone: 712-642-4121
E-mail: desoto@fws.gov

Like many wildlife refuges, the 7,800-acre DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge offers habitat for a wide variety of migratory birds. Some 250 species either live on or migrate through this refuge, whose wildlife habitat is the wide plain formed by the flooding and shifting Missouri River. But the thing that makes a visit to DeSoto unique is buried treasure — some 200,000 artifacts of a historic Civil War-era steamboat wreck that until 1968 lay buried on refuge lands beneath 30 feet of Missouri River mud.

Straddling the Iowa-Nebraska border in Missouri Valley, Iowa, 29 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska, the DeSoto Refuge is home to the Bertrand Collection, a treasure-trove of artifacts recovered from the wreck of the steamboat Bertrand. The boat sank on April Fool’s Day in 1865 on its way to the gold fields of Montana. Excavated between 1968 and 1970, the Bertrand’s buried treasure is now housed in a museum at the refuge that provides a fascinating window on 19th century life.

Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge
Dugway, Utah
Phone: 435-831-5353
E-mail: fishsprings@fws.gov

Located 125 miles southwest of Salt Lake City at the southern end of the Great Salt Lake Desert, the nearly 18,000 acres of Utah’s Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge include 10,000 acres of lush, spring-fed wetlands. The warm, brackish water of the springs provides a literal oasis in the desert for migrating, breeding, and wintering populations of birds in the arid Great Basin.

What’s less well known is that Fish Springs also played a critical role in writing the transportation history of the American West.

This role began in the mid-1800s, when the Pony Express established a station at what is today the refuge’s Thomas Ranch Watchable Wildlife Area. The Transcontinental Telegraph line that helped bring about the demise of the Pony Express ran through what are now refuge lands, and you can still see stubs of the original telegraph poles when you visit.

As the Pony Express faded, it was replaced by the Central Overland Stage, which followed a similar route across western Utah. Mark Twain and Horace Greeley were among the travelers who stopped at the Fish Springs station.

Early in the 1900s, the Lincoln Highway passed through Fish Springs’ marshes, where John Thomas, an early pioneer, had established a ranch. From 1913 to 1927, the Thomas Ranch provided lodging, fuel and meals to adventurous early motorists traveling West.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge
Ridgefield, Wash.
Phone: 360-887-3883

Mallard in Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington. Photo by USFWS.Established in 1965 to provide secure wintering habitat for dusky Canada geese, the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is located on the shores of the Columbia River just 25 miles north of Portland, Oregon, and 15 miles north of Vancouver, Washington. The refuge provides wetlands, grasslands, riverbanks, and forests that combine to provide ideal habitat for the geese — and for other migratory waterfowl.

The refuge also is one of several that mark the path of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The explorers traveled down the Columbia River in 1805 and encountered a village of some 900 Cathlapotle People. Lewis and Clark returned to the village in 1806 to visit and trade. Of that visit, Clark reported that he: “purchased a sea otter robe...wappatoe and some pashaquar roots” and “gave a Medal of the small size to the principal chief.”

Today the historic site is one of the best-preserved Native American sites in the Northwest U.S. Archeaologists working on the refuge have uncovered the foundations of several cedar plankhouses, the largest of which is 200 feet by 45 feet. When you visit Ridgefield, the remains of this large native village will provide you with a firsthand look at the relationship of these early people to the rich resources of the Columbia River Valley.

Don’t forget to check back later this summer for more refuge vacation series. And read about even more refuge outings here.

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worker. Courtesy USFS.
John Hay National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts. Photo by David A. Blohm, Courtesy NWRA Photo Library.
Great Blue Heron eating large fish in Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Massachusetts. Photo by Ken Andrews, Courtesy USFWS.
Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. Courtesy USFWS.
Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia and NorthCarolina. Courtesy USFWS.
Wildflowers in Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois. Courtesy of USFWS.
DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, which is a stopover for migrating waterfowl such as wood ducks. Photo by Dave Menke, Courtesy USFWS.
Mallard in Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington. Photo by USFWS.