Monday, July 27, 2015

Lessons Learned from the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge by John Hartig

The Refuge's new LEED-certified Visitor Center is
 being built adjacent to Michigan's only Ramsar
 Wetland of International Importance - Humbug Marsh.
Photo credit : Jerry Jourdan
I like to think of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge as a tapestry. A tapestry is a form of textile art traditionally woven on a vertical loom and most often proudly displayed in a prominent location of a home. Individual colored threads, each unique and beautiful in their own right, are woven together to produce an exceptional piece of art more beautiful and much stronger than imagined with just the individual threads. The Refuge is like an ecological tapestry made up of numerous species and habitats that when woven together are more beautiful and much stronger than imagined with just the individual species and habitats. Much like a textile tapestry is a source of pride in the home, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge tapestry has become a source of pride in southeast Michigan and southwest Ontario.

There is no scientific doubt that this Refuge would truly be unique in its own right, because of its plethora and diversity of fish and wildlife, if it were not situated in the industrial heartland and a nearly seven-million person urban area.  But it is, and just like a rose that grows surrounded by concrete and steel is more remarkable than one that grows in a horticulturist’s garden, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge is more remarkable because it is being built in the industrial heartland and within a major urban area.

Refuge celebrates completion of environmental education
 shelter in Humbug Marsh. Photo credit: D. Mitchell
The story is truly a compelling one – that cooperative conservation is helping re-create gathering places for people and wildlife along the Detroit River and western Lake Erie.  These unique conservation places are now a key factor in providing the quality of life demanded by competitive communities and businesses in the 21st Century.  Equally important is that cooperative conservation is helping provide an exceptional outdoor recreational and conservation experience to nearly seven million people in the watershed.  That, in turn, is helping develop the next generation of conservationists and sustainability entrepreneurs. 

Over 200 Detroit High School Students participate
 in Sturgeon Day on the Detroit RiverWalk
Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
If conservation can be brought into the industrial heartland and this major urban area through the work of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, it can be done in other urban areas.  Key lessons from building the Refuge include:

·                     Establish a compelling vision;

·                     Practice adaptive management;

·                     Build partnerships at all levels;

·                     Develop an ecosystem ethic through broad-based education, outreach, and stewardship;

·                     Connect people with nature;

·                     Build a record of success and celebrate it frequently;

·                     Quantify benefits;

·                     Involve the public in all actions to develop a sense of place and instill local responsibility               for stewardship;

·                     Recruit and train individuals to be urban change agents and facilitators; and

·                     Recruit a high-profile champion.

Urban conservation work is not easy and not for the faint of heart.  It is frequently underappreciated.  However, it is so important, much needed, and can be very rewarding. 

What lessons can you share from other successful urban conservation programs and what needs to be done to share these lessons within our growing urban wildlife conservation family? 

[Editor's Note:  See the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Urban Wildlife Conservation program site]


Richard Skoglund said...

Dr. Hartig has done a great job of bringing together various interest groups to help build the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge to the point that it is currently. Going forward many of these groups can be very helpful in using their resources to make the Refuge resources a focal point in bringing conservation to the local population.

Gloria said...

The Chicago area has many people to be thankful for but one in particular stands out. That is Stephen Packard. His work with volunteer stewards and many "Friends" of conservation areas is priceless experience in dealing with people and encouraging leadership and responsibility within the ranks. There are several blogs written by Packard that journal much of this information. One such is Take the time to read what he has to say and you will learn much.

Gloria said...

Definitely will be visiting the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge in the near future to see first hand what has been and is being accomplished.

John Hartig said...

Richard, One on the important points is that no single agency or organization can do this alone. It takes partnerships. And partnerships take relationships that have to be kindled and nurtured. You are an outstanding example of this through your Stewardship Crew. Thanks for your leadership.

John Hartig said...

Gloria, You point is really important. Volunteer stewards, like Stephen Packard in Chicago, are really important in making nature part of everyday urban life. I also really appreciate the website and love how it weaves history, theory, and practical thinking and action together to better care for urban places for people and wildlife. We surely could use more such websites to achieve cooperative learning and to inspire others to get involved.

John Hartig said...

Gloria, Here is the link to our website.

When you visit you will be pleasantly surprised. Just like Chicago, Detroit has amazing, continentally-significant, natural resources that are even more remarkable because they are found in the industrial heartland and a major urban area.

Josable said...

One of the joys I have is talking to people that live in and around Detroit and sharing with them the existence of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. In such a large metropolitan area, there is a large segment of the population that is unaware of this incredible jewel at their doorstep. It is a joy to share with these people everything that the Refuge stands for and all of the opportunities for so many different things within the Refuge. Spreading that message is a challenge and Dr. Hartig has done a wonderful job of getting that message out. The future of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge is limitless for all the good that it can do on so many different levels.

John Hartig said...

Joe, Getting the word out about incredible natural resources right in our backyard is really important. With the high percentage of people disconnected from the natural world, we have a real challenge. If we are going to truly bring conservation to cities and help develop the next generation of conservationists, then we will need a consistent long-term communication and outreach strategy to inform people first. Then we need to get them outdoors and provide a compelling and worthwhile experience. Such experiences can help people develop a stewardship ethic that will inspire them to live differently. We clearly have our work cut out for us.

Unknown said...

As I see it the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge has for the last decade or so navigated a somewhat narrow challenge; that of increasing and maintaining a level of visibility while being largely closed to public access, a necessity while it completes the long and complex task of completing its infrastructure. In some ways this has been helpful. To a large degree the Refuge is not broadly known in metro Detroit. In truth, how many things truly ARE widely known in our modern fractured media landscape? Indeed, much like our 'fractured media landscape', the Refuge is niche. It has a committed cadre of volunteers and experts that are extremely committed. Until we open to the public, I would contend that is all we need for now. Were the Refuge to be widely known at this point, all the attention would be on "why isn't it open yet?" Meanwhile, little by little we can build up the attention and interest of committed local experts, activists, and volunteers.

When the Refuge is fully open, that will be the appropriate time for us to "go viral".

John Hartig said...

Robert, While it is accurate that much of the refuge is technically closed, we offer education and outreach events at Humbug Marsh, offer programming at the Gibraltar Bay Unit, encourage environmental education at the Gibraltar Wetlands Unit in partnership with Gibraltar Carlson High School, co-sponsor Hawk Fest at Lake Erie Metropark, co-sponsor Point Mouillee Waterfowl Festival, have an active hunting program, offer beach use on Sugar Island, have been a major sponsor of major fishing tournaments, and much more. I agree that when our Visitor Center opens and the school ship dock and fishing pier is done, along with over 100 miles of greenway trails linking to the refuge, visitation will increase substantially. Yes we are laying the foundation, raising awareness, and building expectation for the future. And the best is yet to come!

Emily said...

I love the idea of thinking about a beautiful tapestry, a work of art that children and adults alike can learn from observing the smallest insect to the interactions across the forests, wetlands and water.

John Hartig said...

Emily, One of the great things about places like Detroit, Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco, and others is that you can find remarkable fish, wildlife, and requisite habitats where millions of people live. These tapestries clearly have the potential to help communities gain competitive advantage, but they can also inspire the next generation of conservationists.

Kristi Judd said...

I agree- places like the DRIWR provide urban communities the opportunity appreciate natural areas in their own back yards. Citizens who have this connection to nature are more likely to make good choices related to conservation and other environmental issues. People are sometimes surprised when I say that some of my field sites are located along the Detroit River (I'm a Biologist at Eastern Michigan University). While conducting research at the DRIWR, I've had the great opportunity to see first hand how interagency cooperation can manage and restore urban natural areas. These restoration projects are great opportunities for interactions between managers and scientists- there is still so much we need to learn.

John Hartig said...

Kristi, Your point is really important, especially working with universities to better understand the ecosystems we manage and to engage students in compelling real-world management of natural resources. This unique partnership between Eastern Michigan University and the Refuge has clearly helped build our knowledge base and our capacity for management consistent with adaptive management that calls of assessing, setting priorities, and taking actions in an iterative fashion for continuous improvement. And with student involvement, we are providing a compelling applied research experience that will help develop the next generation of conservationists.

Burke said...

The partnerships and stakeholder groups that have worked so hard for the DRIWR are an incredible part of the story. Watching the Refuge Gateway transform from a vacant urban field slowly towards its full implementation is a credit to all of those partners who have worked so tirelessly towards creating this unique place along the Detroit River. The USFWS has done an amazing job as have all of the various agencies, school groups, volunteer organizations and passionate individuals.

While there have been so many volunteers and conservationists interested and involved in the project - its exciting to know that through its existence and continued programming the Refuge will become a key part in developing our future conservationists and leaders for the region.

John Hartig said...

Burke, I agree that partnerships are critically important and that continuity in those partnerships has been important. We need people who understand what it takes to create and sustain partnerships. It took over ten years of hard work by many to achieve what we have today at the Refuge Gateway and Humbug Marsh - Michigan's only Wetland of International Importance. The story is so compelling - it is the first project in the world where an industrial brownfield has been sufficiently cleaned up and habitats restored to serve as an ecological buffer for a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance (Humbug Marsh). It will also be the home of the Refuge's visitor center. The Refuge Gateway, including the Visitor Center, school ship dock and world-class fishing pier, kayak landing, and greenway trails. and Humbug Marsh, are such an important part of bringing conservation to our metropolitan region. The project is truly transformational for our region in that it creating a unique outdoor destination of choice that can help inspire the next generation of conservationists.

Unknown said...

John, I agree with the key lessons that you have pointed out. Without the wonderful and passionate partners and volunteers like Dick Skoglund and the staff at the USFWS this vision would’ve never happened. Great leadership from the friend’s board over the years and as you mentioned, having a high profile champion all have made this vision possible. When the opportunity arises to talk about this wonderful tapestry to the sceptics and naysayers; I am always reminded of the story of the young school children from Detroit who were able to visit Humbug because of an education grant from the Erb Foundation. As they looked over the landscape and saw deer standing in the distant one child was hesitant in exiting the bus because they had never seen a deer in the wild before.

If the only reason the Visitors Center is constructed in Humbug along with all of the other locations within the Refuge, is to allow the general public and school children who do not have the resources to view and experience wildlife, then it is well worth it. Kudos to all who have made this possible!

John Hartig said...

Tim, I agree that we have a unique opportunity to engage and inspire a whole generation of kids who are unfamiliar with wildlife or even afraid. We need to make sure we are welcoming to all and that we remove barriers to access. We are uniquely positioned to make something special happen here in metropolitan Detroit. And our friends and partners have been wonderful and will be even more important in the future. Thank you to all!

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It is not merely the picturesque forests and views of river and lake that make the value of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, it is it's infrastructure for life. This is the young successional forests, less grand in size yet abundant in food and shelter for the full spread of fauna from insects to migrating birds. It is the managed and constructed wetland systems down the coast, a network of infrastructure emulating the function of the former wetland complex - generating great plant diversity and yet more fauna in turn. The prairies, a prodouction not just of incredible plant and animal diversity but a preserve for the condition of fire in the landscape - first common, then banished, and now managed and controlled. Here we find value in a diverse assemblage of species, landscapes , and practices.

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