Urban Wildlife Refuges bring the outdoors to your front door


Did you know: More than 80 percent of Americans live in and around cities? While conservation efforts historically focus on rural areas, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s urban national wildlife refuges are working to connect urban and suburban residents to nature in their communities and create the next generation of outdoor stewards.

To celebrate the importance of national wildlife refuges as vital places for outdoor recreation in cities, Interior is designating September 29 as Urban National Wildlife Refuge Day. Across the country, there are 101 urban refuges that host more than 11.7 million people a year -- making it easy to find one near you.

Scroll down to explore a sampling of the unique lands and programs that are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System in metropolitan areas throughout the country.

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia

A boardwalk through through marsh with birds flying overhead
The boardwalk at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge by Ron Holmes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Our nation’s first urban refuge, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum was established in 1972 in southwest Philadelphia to protect Pennsylvania’s largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh -- a key stop in the Atlantic flyway. With more than 1.7 million people living within 10 miles, the refuge also helps connect the local community to the outdoors in their backyard. Every year, Heinz Refuge hosts more than 250,000 visitors for environmental education, birdwatching, hiking, fishing, kayaking and other outdoor recreation activities on its more than 10 miles of trails. That in turn benefits the local economy with the refuge generating approximately $2.5 million in economic activity for Philadelphia and Delaware counties.

A hawk perches on a leafless tree branch with a city skyline in the background
A hawk perches at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia. Photo by Derik Pinsonneault, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

In 2014, the refuge shifted its attention from just connecting the local community to the outdoors to engaging community members in Philadelphia’s larger conservation efforts. The refuge staff visit local schools multiple times throughout the year and work with teachers to develop field trips for all ages to John Heinz. To make it easier for classes to get to the refuge, staff collaborate with area partners to provide transportation to the refuge. Going beyond the refuge, staff work with local groups on conservation in their neighborhood, transforming vacant lots to pocket parks. This ensures the refuge understands the community’s needs, while helping the community feel invested in the future of John Heinz.

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque

A large flock of birds take flight in a meadow
Large flock of Blackbird species take flight from field at Valle de Oro. Photo by Wenshu Chen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge is the Southwest’s first urban wildlife refuge. Designated in 2012, the 570-acre property focuses on wildlife and habitat restoration and deepening connections between people and the natural world. Created from land that was once a dairy farm, it’s located just seven miles south of downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest metropolitan area.

A group of people look at a bird in a woman's hand
A group of visitors to Valle de Oro watch a demonstration about birds. Photo by Ian Shive, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Recognizing the need to connect urban audiences with wild places and build the next generation of conservation-minded citizens and professionals, the community helped build Valle de Oro in just five years. Since that time, refuge staff and partners have developed educational, recreational and cultural programming for middle and high school students, and created an App allowing visitors to interact with the refuge’s flora and fauna in an entirely new way. They’ve also engaged local students to design artwork for a shuttle bus that improves access to the refuge and employed over 100 youth a year in conservation jobs.

San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex

A field of wildflowers
San Diego National Wildlife Refuge with wildflowers, Mother Miguel and the Sweetwater Reservoir in background. Photo by Lisa Cox, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Located in southern California, San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex is in the heart of the nation’s second largest metropolitan area with a population of over 17 million people. The complex includes four refuges that stretch over 17,000 acres, helping protect habitat and species, and supporting vast shrublands, cool river corridors and coastal marshes -- all at the doorstep of millions of residents.

Teenagers look through binoculars at the camera
Students from Jefferson Elementary School in North Park learn about local birds by playing bird bingo on the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Lisa Cox, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Recently, the refuge complex worked with 13 partners to reach new and diverse urban audiences and connect them with the outdoors. These collective efforts are reaching more people, whether in their neighborhood parks, in schools or the refuges themselves -- all with the goal of demonstrating how conserving wildlife and natural habitats sustains healthy human communities. Through outdoor learning, service projects and stewardship of natural habitats, and restoration-based work for young adults, San Diego refuge complex is building a new urban conservation citizenry.

Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Orange skies and low-lying fog on a landscape of green meadows and trees on the horizon
A scene from Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge by Erik Fremstad (www.sharetheexperience.org). 

Located within the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and headquartered just 1 1/2 miles from the famous Mall of America, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge comprises 14,000 acres that stretch over 70 miles along the Minnesota River. Established in 1976 by a group of local citizens concerned by the encroaching development, the refuge today continues to provide habitat for migratory waterfowl, fish and other wildlife species. Another key part of the refuge’s mission is to provide the residents of the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs with environmental education, wildlife recreational opportunities and interpretive programming.

Kids stand around a pond to fish
Students fish at Bass Ponds at Minnesota Valley. Photo by Joel Vos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And to make sure they’re reaching a wider, more diverse audience, Minnesota Valley partners with local organizations, such as Wilderness Inquiry, which works to connect people to the local waterways running through their city. In one year alone, Wilderness Inquiry and Minnesota Valley’s staff introduced 1,200 urban youth and their families to their refuge through education and recreation activities on the Minnesota River. Not only did students meet academic goals and learn technical job skills as part of these events, they also develop a greater sense of stewardship while paddling Voyageur canoes.

Portland-Vancouver National Wildlife Refuges

A river seen through the trees
A scenic view from the Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

With four national wildlife refuges situated like compass points around the Portland-Vancouver metro area, Tualatin River, Ridgefield, Steigerwald Lake, and Wapato Lake national wildlife refuges -- all critical stopovers on the Pacific Flyway -- offer wildlife spectacles on a scale like nowhere else in the area. The recreation activities are also world-class, collectively offering miles of accessible trails, an auto tour adventure, waterfowl hunting, nature education for dozens of schools, and events that draw thousands of our community friends and neighbors.

The back of a group of kids looking out in a meadow
As part of a summer birding program, a group of kids from Portland’s King School gather to see Great Blue Heron in the distance at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Meghan Kearney, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Working with the local community, the refuges’ Nature Ambassadors are partnering with school and summer lunch programs to provide interpretive wildlife experiences for students and their families. From creating an app to combine nature and technology to bringing fishing and outdoor recreation to town, developing partnerships with local organizations is key for the refuges in the area. The refuges support community coalitions to meet their communities’ needs and ensure they are planning for the future.

These are just five of the many urban wildlife refuges that are working to make sure residents of cities and towns across the country have the opportunity to experience the outdoors. Whether you’re a nature watcher, hunter, angler, wildlife photographer or hiker, urban wildlife refuges are for you.