Interior Goes Wild About Urban Areas


What first leaps to mind when you think about the Interior Department?  The Grand Canyon or Yellowstone? Beaches, battlefields and bison? If so, you are not alone. What many people don’t realize is that Interior -- in addition to overseeing many of our nation’s wild places -- also has a very significant impact on urban areas. 

Golden Gate Bridge at dusk.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Photo by Leonard Rush (

From Gateway National Recreation Area in the shadows of New York City skyscrapers to some of the most iconic views in San Francisco at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, more than 75 urban parks across the nation serve millions of city dwellers. Over 100 wildlife refuges and millions of acres of recreational lands in or near cities provide a quick escape to nature.

Introducing a touch of color and sound, Urban Bird Treaties make city living better for both people and birds. More than 30 urban programs managed by the National Park Service preserve historic sites, encourage recreation and generate tourism -- driving economic development and boosting civic pride for local communities. The U.S. Geological Survey also serves urban areas by applying scientific research to monitor and improve air and water quality.

White egret flies low over lake.
John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Ryan Doyle (

All across the country, Interior is working hand-in-hand with local partners to connect people to nearby recreational opportunities and restore urban natural resources.  

Access for all

Interior is part of a coalition of 15 federal agencies to restore urban waters and surrounding lands. Led by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Urban Waters Federal Partnership also helps local communities increase recreation and educate the public on healthy watersheds. 

Young boy kayaking in yellow kayak.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Photo by National Park Service. 

In Northwest Indiana -- one of 19 locations where the federal partnership is working -- we’re expanding boating opportunities in the area. In 2015, local partners with support from the program installed the state’s first wheelchair accessible canoe/kayak launch so that everyone can enjoy spending time on the water. Since then, three more accessible launches have been installed, with a fourth slated this summer for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. 

“We worked collaboratively with EPA, the U.S. Forest Service, and our local partners,” explained Lynda Lancaster of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. ”It’s only by working collectively that we were able to install and support these launches.”

Saving Salmon

Nestled in the Seattle metro area, Lake Sammamish State Park lies in a heavily urbanized watershed with 600 acres of parks and greenspace -- making it the perfect place for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to introduce one of the first-ever urban wildlife refuge partnerships. Lake Sammamish is also home to a unique fish called the Kokanee salmon, which unlike most salmon, never leaves freshwater, traveling upstream to spawn and then returning to the lake. 
“The kokanee are a unique little red fish,” explained Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships Coordinator Kelly Donahue. “And an amazing partnership exists to save this culturally significant species.” 

Kokanee salmon swim above rocks in lake.
Salmon in Lake Sammamish. Photo by Interior. 

The Service and its partners are improving community awareness about the need for clean water and access for kokanee to swim freely upstream to spawning areas. As a result, landowners and municipalities are removing several fish passage barriers that currently block kokanee from several miles of spawning habitat. This will increase the number of kokanee with the ultimate goal of promoting more fishing opportunity near Seattle. Building on the success at Lake Sammamish, Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships have now been established in 27 demographically and geographically varied cities across the country. 

Cleaner urban waters

Stormwater runoff is a major source of water pollution and flooding in cities across the country.  Thanks to the U.S. Geological Survey -- which has been monitoring and researching urban stormwater since the 1970s -- many cities have a better understanding of where pollution occurs and what to do about it. Scientists like Bill Selbig of the USGS Wisconsin Water Science Center are helping cities and states monitor, interpret and reduce stormwater runoff.

Water runs under walkway.
Milliken State Park in Detroit, Michigan. Photo courtesy of JJR.

Right now, USGS is doing research in Gary, Indiana; Detroit, Michigan; and Buffalo, New York; to assess the impacts of green infrastructure projects. At Gary City Hall, scientists are studying how rain gardens can reduce or delay the flow of stormwater into the sewers. “We are studying a wide range of projects -- grass swales, leaf collection programs, permeable pavements, filters, rain gardens and more -- to figure out which of these practices work best and why,” explained Selbig. “The end goal, of course, being cleaner urban waters.”

Transitioning from concrete to grass and from water fountains to flowing streams, city dwellers can breathe easier knowing that Interior and its partners are bringing nature closer to home.