Story and photographs by Jeff Parker
The National Parks have famously been called “America’s best idea”. I have visited many of our National Parks and they ARE awesome. However, I tend to think that our National Wildlife Refuges are “America’s Better Idea”.
You see, the National Parks were created for their scenic beauty or historical significance. Any habitat preservation or wildlife protection was a happy coincidence. Many of our grandest parks are mostly rock and ice. Yellowstone, the granddaddy and Numero Uno of our parks, was created because of the geological wonders of the area. Wildlife never entered the picture. Consequently some of the most important areas for wildlife, the valleys, are not part of the park.
National Wildlife Refuges on the other hand were created specifically FOR wildlife. From the Refuge System website: “The Mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” So, unlike the National Park Service, wildlife conservation comes first and any scenic beauty is a happy coincidence!
With more than 560 refuges, there is at least one in every state. These refuges provide, well, refuge for our native wildlife. The habitat in some cases may be the only place that species is found. Without Aransas National Wildlife Refuge we would no longer have the privilege of hearing the bugle of Whooping Cranes. At one time, the entire world population spent every winter at Aransas. Until the mid-1950’s nobody even knew where they went in the summer.
Laguna Atascosa NWR, and some private property nearby, hold the last breeding population of ocelots in the United States. Without the protection provided by the Refuge, these wild, beautiful cats would vanish from our country.
The Attwater’s Prairie Chicken has a wild population of less than 30. The population had recently been as high as 100 but Hurricane Harvey changed that. This highly endangered bird would no longer be with us without, you guessed it, the aptly named Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.
There is even a refuge, Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, created specifically to protect two endangered plants and an endangered butterfly.
At the other end of the spectrum, Bosque del Apache NWR is home to thousands of Sandhill Cranes and tens of thousands of Snow Geese every winter. What an amazing, astounding spectacle it is to see 20,000+ Snow Geese blast off in front of an eye-popping New Mexico sunrise. If you love wildlife, it is an experience you need to have.
Each year millions of migrating birds depend on the refuges as stepping stones of habitat. The refuges provide places to rest and refuel during the journey between winter and summer ranges.
Our National Wildlife Refuges also provide a place for our psyches to rest and refuel. Whether you go for a strenuous hike in a designated wilderness area or relax on a viewing deck within feet of your parked car, being in nature really is good for you. Breathe, slow down and take in the myriad forms of life that also inhabit this Earth.
What a blessing it is to have these lands set aside for wildlife. The majority of the refuges are open to the public. There is a very good chance there is one within an hour’s drive of where you live. Go check them out. You might not see an ocelot or Attwater’s Prairie Chicken but I’ll bet you’ll find many other forms of wildlife!
Jeff Parker is the owner of Explore in Focus offering photography tours and workshops for the naturally curious. His work has been featured in many magazines as well as the book Explore Texas. For more information go to: www.ExploreinFocus.com.