Theodore Roosevelt was many things. Important among them he was a cowboy who loved North Dakota. He was a progressive Republican (isn't that a contradiction in terms now?). He was the Secretary of the Navy. He was the 26th President of the United States. He was these and many other things. However in the minds of most people concerned with the conservation of the earth, Teddy Roosevelt was a visionary.
Teddy had his fingers in the establishment of the National Park Service and he was around when the National Forest System was established. And given my profession, Teddy was the one who had the foresight to establish the National Wildlife Refuges. Although my old colleague Sean Furniss will vigorously argue that there were other National Wildlife Refuges established before Pelican Island in Florida, that refuge is widely accepted to be the first refuge in the system. Pelican Island was set aside by Teddy to protect nesting habitat for colonial nesting waterbirds back in the days when plume hunters had largely decimated populations of herons and egrets so their plume-like feathers could adorn the hats of high society women in large cities.
Teddy helped put a stop to that foolishness in 1903 when he signed an Executive Order establishing Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. There were several other early refuges established in those days including Breton NWR in Louisiana (the only one for which there is photographic proof that Roosevelt actually visited) and Chase Lake NWR in Stutsman County, North Dakota. Chase Lake is home to the world's largest nesting colony of American White Pelicans. Its also set in a prairie landscape that is rapidly disappearing from the earth. However we have Teddy Roosevelt to thank for putting the earth first and setting aside these valuable wildlife lands.
From the humble beginnings of Pelican Island NWR in 1903, the National Wildlife Refuge system has grown to 556 separate units of land and water extending from the impossibly deep Marianas Trench National Wildlife Refuge in the western Pacific Ocean offshore from Guam, east to Sandy Point NWR on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands.
Refuges range in size from the gargantuan Marianas Trench NWR at more than 50,500,000 acres to tiny Mille Lacs NWR in Minnesota that weighs in at just one acre. However no matter how large or how small refuges are there is one thing that is for certain - unless there is a time of extreme national emergency these lands will always be there for wildlife to have a home. Surrounding lands might easily be built up (look at John Neinz NWR almost in downtown Philadelphia for an example) but the refuge will still be there and critters will find it and be safe there.
The first National Wildlife Refuge I ever visited was Necedah NWR in my home state of Wisconsin. I traveled to Necedah in April 1969 when I was a senior in high school because at the time Necedah was one of very few places in Wisconsin where Wild Turkey's could be found and I wanted to see a Wild Turkey. The two things I remember the most about my first visit to a National Wildlife Refuge are 1) almost being struck by a bolt of lightning as 2) I watched a group of 24 Wild Turkey's milling around by the side of the road just being turkeys.
When I started working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in August 1977, my first job was as an Ascertainment Biologist in the Service's Region 3 based in Minneapolis Minnesota. From that office a group of four of us evaluated lands proposed to the Service for acquisition and inclusion in the National Wildlife Refuge system in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. We also dabbled a bit in the establishment of the Waterfowl Production Area program in Iowa. All of these areas in each of those states required a lot of travel. My supervisor at the time, Chuck Elliott, wanted us to always stop by any refuges we were near to check out the landscape and to meet fellow Service employees. It was from that experience that I decided that one day I wanted to have visited all of the Refuges in the system.
As of today I have visited 532 of the 556 National Wildlife Refuges in the system. My latest refuge Everglades Headwaters NWR in central Florida is also the newest refuge in the system. The first tract of land we own at Everglades Headwaters is a 10 acre tract east of Lake Hamilton in Polk County. From this humble beginning plans are for the entire Refuge and Conservation Area to include 150,000 acres of which about 100,000 acres will be protected through perpetual easements with landowners who are interested in protecting and preserving the prairie-like landscape at the upper end of the Everglades.
I began my day last Sunday with a visit to Pelican Island NWR. I arrived there about sunrise and spent an enjoyable hour (its always enjoyable at Pelican Island) traipsing around looking for birds and feeding mosquitoes. From there I stopped by Archie Carr NWR a series of discontinuous tracts of ocean front established to protect nesting habitat for endangered Sea Turtles whose ancestors have visited Florida long before Europeans came and upset the balance. From Archie Carr I worked my way across the increasingly human-dominated landscape south of Orlando and arrived at our one tract of land at Everglades Headwaters in early afternoon. I arrived there just in time to watch a violent afternoon thunderstorm roll in from the south. Before it hit, however, I crawled under the boundary fence and stood firmly on this newest piece of property that is owned by the earth but which humans get to watch over and protect from other humans.
As I stood there on our newest National Wildlife Refuge I thought about all the miles I have traveled and all the places I have seen and all the wildlife I have watched in my quest to visit each of the 556 areas protected as a National Wildlife Refuge. I remembered the landowner in Wisconsin who assaulted and battered me with a ball peen hammer when I stopped by his farm one day to try to purchase a wetland from him. I thought about the sky white with Snow Geese and Ross' Geese at Sutter NWR in California one February morning long ago. I thought about the sea otters I watched pounding abalones to a smithereens offshore from Kodiak NWR in Alaska and I thought about the moose that almost ran me over as I walked in the forest at Umbagog NWR in New Hampshire. I thought about the deathly silence in the remnant forest of Guam NWR and remembered that the silence was like that predicted in Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" Only on Guam the silence came from a ravenous brown snake introduced from the Solomon's Islands who has a sweet spot on its taste buds for birds and their eggs. Hopefully the refuge will help turn things around and some bird song will return to that forest some day.
I thought about these and many other pleasant experiences I have had while trying to visit all of the National Wildlife Refuges and as I did I couldn't help saying "bully" a few times for Teddy Roosevelt. If he hadn't set aside that first National Wildlife Refuge long ago none of us might have ever have had the opportunity to experience a glimpse of what once was before, as the Jimmy Buffett song warns "there's nothing left to see." Happily the National Wildlife Refuges assure us that there will always be something to see.
Will I ever get to all of the Refuges in the system? Its highly unlikely because some of the refuges in the mid-Pacific are so incredibly remote. Unless I want to swim from Honolulu I probably will never get to them. Still I will try to visit as many of them as I can for as long as I can. But each subsequent visit to a new refuge won't be able to compare with the day I visited the oldest one and the newest one, both of which are doing their best to help the earth look like its supposed to look.
Thanks again Teddy Roosevelt.