Thursday, July 2, 2015

Why the National Wildlife Refuge System Needs Successful Urban Refuges by John Hartig

John Hartig, author and Detroit River Intnerational Wildlife
Refuge
Putting Detroit and Windsor, the automobile capitals of the United States and Canada, respectively, in the same sentence as conservation may seem like a paradox, but it really isn’t and you may be pleasantly surprised to learn why. In the 1960s, the Detroit River was one of the most polluted rivers in North America because of its history of industrial and urban development.  Today, the cleanup and recovery of the Detroit River represent one of the most remarkable ecological recovery stories in North America with the return of balk eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey, lake sturgeon, lake whitefish, walleye, mayflies, wild celery, and more. Out of this recovery has come the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge – the only international one in North America. It represents a new model for conservation – one that focuses on conserving, protecting, and restoring habitats for 30 species of waterfowl, 113 kinds of fish, and over 300 species of birds, and on making nature part of everyday urban life. Today, this refuge is one of the 14 priority urban refuges charged with helping provide a reason and opportunities for urban residents to find, appreciate, and care for nature in their cities and beyond.



Peregrine Falcon overlooking the Detroit skyline.
Photo credit: DTE Energy

What percentage of people in the United States live in urban areas? The answer is 80%.  Incidentally, the same percentage of people in Canada lives in urban areas. Throughout the world 54% of all people now live in urban areas and this is projected to increase to 66% by 2050. Most urban residents are disconnected from the natural world. As a global community, we cannot afford to allow this disconnection to continue and that is why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has created an Urban Wildlife Conservation Program to help create a connected conservation constituency. This new program is made up of the 14 priority urban refuges, 14 urban wildlife refuge partnerships, and many other urban bird treaty cities and other suburban refuges.


However, this new program is not without constructive criticism and tough questions from within the National Wildlife Refuge System and key partners like those representing biodiversity. Often, the argument is that it will just take too many resources to bring conservation to cities and that this will diminish the amount of resources for conservation of biodiversity and wilderness. One good answer is that it should not be either/or, but we can and should do both. The vast majority of resources will still be deployed in conserving fish, wildlife, and biodiversity in wilderness and rural areas, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investing a relatively small amount of resources in bringing conservation to selected cities in a strategic and value-added way. 
I believe that we need to do both and that bringing conservation to cities in compelling urban places such as San Diego, Detroit, Albuquerque, Chicago, Alamo, San Francisco, and others, and keeping urbanites connected with nature, can indeed help build support for conservation of fish, wildlife, and biodiversity in cities and beyond.  Investing in urban conservation should also help develop a more conservationally-literate society and one that values, appreciates, and cares for conservation in cities and beyond.  Finally, this is fully consistent with the mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.  This mission statement clearly includes humans and future generations.
 
What can and should be done to win over more people in the conservation field to recognize the broader value and benefit of bringing conservation to cities and to support experimenting with making nature part of everyday urban life in selected cities?

[Editor's note: Comment below and "like" below]

19 comments:

Will Weber said...

Nature wants to come back to cities, but it needs our help. Nature is our most original inspiration ready to offer beauty, serenity and peace, but many people just don't know how to befriend the natural world. Creating an appreciative context, opportunity and support to help people of all ages and backgrounds reconcile with the wonders of Mother Nature seems a most important and noble undertaking for the National Wildlife Refuge system. Keep up the effort, John!

Gerry Rising said...

I look forward to participating in this activity.

John Hartig said...

Will, yes we are trying engage people of all ages and backgrounds in the wonders of nature right in their urban backyard. In metropolitan Detroit this work is critically important, but as I said in the blog it has, working with other urban refuges and urban conservation partnerships, the opportunity to build support of conservation in wilderness and rural areas. The challenge is great, but the potential impact could be incredible.

Gloria said...

I live in Chicago where a great effort is being made to engage the populace with urban nature. Campgrounds being opened near the city, nature preserves and the whole revamping of the Forest Preserve system along with restoration efforts and the bike-hiking paths where possible along with an outreach of education programs is developing an aware Chicago community.
It is not just for entertainment. Storm water management, wildlife concerns and general health issues are impacted by how we prioritize urban nature. I will have the book in hand soon, should only take a day or two to read.

John Hartig said...

Gloria, Yes Chicago Wilderness and its Green Infrastructure Vision to restore, protect, and connect 1.8 million acres through conservation and thoughtful sustainable development practices is an outstanding example of bringing conservation to cities. Chicago Wilderness is a unique blend of effective education, creative marketing, and grassroots action. I encourage people to check out their website -- http://www.chicagowilderness.org/.

Barry Boyer said...

John Hartig has a good point. Many of our major cities sit atop what used to be very signifiant habitats, and portions of them are still vital for fish and wildlife. As we continue transitioning to a post-industrial economy, nature has a chance to heal some wounds and re-assert itself. From this perspective, it becomes timely to look at the eastern US as a regenerating (albeit fragmented) forest system. However, I think Haritg is, if anything, a bit too diplomatic in his blog post, so I'll try to state the case more forcefully. If the conservation/environmental movement doesn't come into the cities and engage those who live there, we'll become a shrinking movement of aging (mostly white) people doomed to irrelevance. And we'll lose the battle to protect nature, because we'll be using concepts based upon what my academic colleagues would call a false dichotomy--the division of the world into "wild nature" out there and the totally domesticated metropolitan areas where most of us live. It's simply not possible to maintain the structure and function of all the important ecosystems in wilderness areas that are essentially islands in a sea of humanity.There's a lot that can and should be done in and around cities to establish a regime of peaceful coexistence with nature. If we don't understand and act on that reality, shame on us.

John Hartig said...

Barry, Thanks for making the point so strongly and with a sense of urgency. I agree that we need to have a sense of urgency to make our cities sustainable, that includes bringing conservation to cities. First, cities need nature part of everyday urban life to understand and benefit from ecosystem services and to help improve quality of life for citizens and help achieve competitive advantage in the future. This reconnecting with nature right in their backyard will help them gain a better appreciation for these benefits that can lead to a stewardship ethic. Secondly, a stewardship ethic will help city dwellers care for the place they call home and beyond. Clearly, we must invest in cities as a strategic move to better care for natural resources in cities, rural areas, and wilderness. As you noted, we cannot afford to not get involved strategically in bringing conservation to cities or we, as a conservation/environmental field, are doomed to irrelevance.

Orin Gelderloos said...

You ask what can be done. Teaching about the flora and fauna in our neighborhoods, office parks, shopping malls is getting a good start. I have had students from my Field Biology course come back after decades and report the number of birds they have heard and seen in their yards. Many have also planted native species gardens and rain gardens. All these activities teach basic ecological functions of the planet which are overlooked. The goal of developing habitats for biodiversity in the urban areas should be to change the idea that cities are places from which we must escape for re-creation. Rather we should be able to have nature experiences in the same places where we work, eat, sleep, shop, and go to school. "Refugia" in urban areas can be examples and model for thousands of people who cannot travel to the large wilderness areas.

John Hartig said...

Orin, As you noted, education is a key. We need to have every school and community see the importance of teaching conservation right in their backyards. Creating urban refugia close to where people work, eat, sleep, shop, and go to school will help make nature part of everyday urban life. University of Michigan-Dearborn's work through its Environmental Interpretive Center and Rouge River Bird Observatory is outstanding. I encourage people to check out what Orin and his colleagues are doing to help bring conservation to the city at University of Michigan-Dearborn.

http://umdearborn.edu/eic/
http://www.rrbo.org/

Evan Hirsche said...

Hi John, great piece and a reminder that urban refuges are more than just parks and open space. If managed properly, they can support a tremendous diversity of species, and consequently offer a tremendous experience and learning opportunity for our growing urban population. While taking the occasional family trip to an iconic refuge or park is always memorable, it's the places in our backyards that offer some of the best opportunities to cultivate current and future generations of conservationists. Congrats to you for all you've accomplished at Detroit River in this regard!

John Hartig said...

Evan, I agree that it is often the places right in our backyards that offer some of the best opportunities to cultivate current and future generations of conservationists. Getting urban people to connect with nature in their backyard will also help foster a sense of authentic human attachment that can lead to development of a stewardship ethic. The potential in urban areas is huge. Our work at Detroit River is founded on partnerships. We always try to remind people that we can seldom do it alone. Our accomplishments at Detroit River are the result of cooperative learning and innovative public-private partnerships.

Scot F. Martin said...

John,
One of my complaints (as a former teacher) is that too much curricula focuses on distant ecosystems that most students will never visit and there exists no requirement for local knowledge of flora and fauna. Nearby refuges can get people to recognize the value of the creatures that exist in their neighborhoods (or relatively near) and develop a desire to protect the habitat that might exist down the street or even in their own backyards.

Crystal Fowler said...

I love that my school has allowed me to create a class that basically focuses on the Gibraltar Wetland Unit that surrounds Carlson High School. I am able to teach students about what is in their backyard. Students often say stuff like.... Wow I really haven't been outside for a long time. I can't believe we are really at school. I didn't even know this was right by my house. It is my favorite class to teach and there is now a waiting list for the class.

John Hartig said...

Scott, I agree. We need to help people discover nature right in their backyard. However, in places like San Diego, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, and others you can find continentally-significant natural resources. What a unique opportunity. What a unique asset.

John Hartig said...

Crystal, Wouldn't it be great if every school had such natural resources right out there back door. Your efforts at Gibrlatar Carlson High School are a model for wetland learning. Note how Carlson High School is surrounded on three sides by wetlands owned by the refuge.

http://mapcarta.com/26635560

Two wetlands classes are offered at Carlson High School. And we host an annual World Wetlands Day event for thousands of students each year.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_59AfKcJJI

Anonymous said...

In answer to the question posed, I'd love to see progress made on some way(s) to limit the negative impacts of political (and, by extension, budgetary) issues that frustrate volunteers who see the deleterious effects of these issues. Unchecked, the problem may lead to dedicated volunteers leaving, rather than endure the frustration.

John Hartig said...

Anonymous, It is often said that budget manifests mission. If we are serious about providing citizen science opportunities we cannot frustrate volunteers. We need to make sure that citizen science projects are adequately funded, produce measurable results, expand knowledge, provide meaningful experiences for volunteers; and ensure that volunteers have fun.

Lisa Appel said...

People need access to nature for their own health. Successful urban wildlife refuges give people opportunity for that experience while improving environmental health and biological diversity. For example, this journal article documents the health benefits of time in nature - "Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation" http://www.pnas.org/content/112/28/8567.abstract
(Thanks to Dr. John Zawiskie from Cranbrook Institute of Science and Wayne State University for sharing it with me.) There is a growing body of scientific evidence that healthy ecosystems are critical to wildlife and people- urban wildlife refuges can lead on!

John Hartig said...

Lisa, Thanks for emphasizing the health benefits and for the link. If our goal is healthy ecosystems and communities then we must not lose sight of all the benefits of bringing conservation to cities. Here is a link to a Richard Louv article in National Geographic about how nature can boost creativity and health.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/06/130628-richard-louv-nature-deficit-disorder-health-environment/