National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges open to the public again

Great Egret in flight at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, photo by NSL Photography

The US government shutdown earlier this month made a huge impact on US domestic travel. Not only did the shutdown ruin many traveler’s plans in the western area of the US, where many of the most famous US National Parks are located, it had an equally devastating impact in some of the largest cities in the nation, such as Boston (USS Constitution), New York (Statue of Liberty), Philadelphia (Independence Hall & the Liberty Bell), and Washington DC (almost everything).

The closure of the National Park System (NPS) was a tourism disaster for the US. About 280 million people visit US national parks each year, from the NPS’ largest park, Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska — at 13.2 million acres, it’s larger than some countries — to its smallest, the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, Koscuiszko’s home in Philadelphia, PA.

Many travelers worldwide have some familiarity with the US National Park System and its highly diverse 401 parks, monuments, preserves, battlefields, recreation areas, seashores and other units under its care.

Names such as Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Great Smokey Mountains, Sequoia, Everglades, Shenandoah, Muir Woods, Statue of Liberty, USS Arizona, Glacier Bay, Gettysburg and Valley Forge are indelibly written into the minds of Americans who have an itch to travel, and all are managed and maintained for the future by the US National Park Service.

I highly recommend NPS sites. I’ve personally had great pleasure visiting 34 of the nation’s 59 national parks and almost 150 of the NPS’ remaining locations. Together, they comprise more than 84 million acres.

While the National Parks and National Monuments were constantly in the news during the government shutdown, another branch of the US Department of Interior (USDI) was also closed, but rarely mentioned.

This service of the USDI manages even more land than the National Park Service. The National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The NWRS has grown to 560 national wildlife refuges since President Theodore Roosevelt designated the nation’s first, Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, in 1903. The USFWS also manages 38 wetland management districts (WMD). Together, the NWRS and the WMD consist of almost 96 million acres.

More than 40 million people visit the NWRS each year, yet to most Americans and the world’s travelers, names such as Choctaw, Klamath, Alamosa, Bombay Hook, Merritt Island, Okefenokee, Shell Keys, Aroostook, Mingo, Forsythe, Muleshoe and Heinz are virtually unknown.

Everyone knows about the NPS’ Independence National Historic Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its 55 acres include Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Few, however, know of the almost 1,000-acre John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, protecting the largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania, which is also in Philadelphia.

In the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, an urban oasis in the midst of the fifth largest US city, visitors can walk its 10 miles of trails, canoe or kayak, fish and ride a bike along its approximately three-mile-long impoundment pond loop. Along the way, a visitor might see some of the more than 300 species of birds. Many mammals, amphibians, fish and reptiles live in the wild in the Refuge.

The National Parks were created to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic sites and wildlife of the nation and provide them for the enjoyment of its citizens in a way that will leave them unimpaired for future generations.

The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to manage and conserve a network of lands and waters and, as appropriate, work toward the restoration of wildlife and habitat, maintaining their biological integrity, diversity and environmental health for the benefit of present and future generations.

While the national parks were specifically created with visitation in mind and the national wildlife refuges were not, visiting the national wildlife refuges can be an amazing experience. I’ve been to more than 100 of the US national wildlife refuges and can highly recommend them for their beauty, amazing diversity and their wildlife on view.

Even if you’re not a bird watcher, seeing a great egret in flight, a tiny hummingbird hovering among scarlet beebalm or a brilliantly colored wood duck or harlequin swimming is a marvelous experience. Seeing deer, red fox, leopard frogs and snapping turtles — not behind bars or in an artificial habitat, but in the wild, where they live in the natural world — is beautiful and amazing for children, teens and adults.

Many wildlife refuges conduct wildlife walks of many kinds, led by experienced, highly knowledgeable volunteers, helping visitors see, find and identify the flora and fauna as they roam the acres of wildlife in the refuges

While US national parks are great travel destinations, don’t forget the nation’s national wildlife refuges and what they offer travelers.