Urban Wildlife Refuge Part 1: America's First

Outdoor companies in and around Philadelphia have an invaluable resource at their disposal, but very few are taking advantage.

By Kristen Pope October 13, 2015

“We’re looking for the best ways to engage and draw in the urban community, and there’s a large population right here in Philadelphia. We’re looking for any means and any partnership that can help us provide what the local public is interested in. One of the most important aspects of conservation, in my opinion, is the engagement with people.” —Lamar Gore, manager of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum

Residents of South Philadelphia’s Eastwick neighborhood don’t have to go far to see wildlife. The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum—the country’s first urban wildlife refuge—is right in their backyard, and residents can spy eagles, ospreys, deer, fox, raccoons, and many other species not far from their homes.

The refuge at Tinicum—a stone’s throw from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall—was established in 1972, a time when the idea of integrating urban neighborhoods with wildlife habitat was unique, to say the least.

“It came at a time when it was probably pretty far-fetched for the Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a refuge in an urban area,” says refuge manager Lamar Gore.

Refuge manager Lamar Gore speaks with Terry Williams, neighborhood resident and president of the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition (EFNC), in the South Philadelphia neighborhood of Eastwick, less than half a mile from the refuge office. The EFNC and the refuge work together on joint community projects, youth programs, and other initiatives. Courtesy Tandem Stills + Motion

Refuge manager Lamar Gore speaks with Terry Williams, neighborhood resident and president of the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition (EFNC), in the South Philadelphia neighborhood of Eastwick, less than half a mile from the refuge office. The EFNC and the refuge work together on joint community projects, youth programs, and other initiatives.

To find your closest refuge, visit http://www.fws.gov/refuges.

A 10-minute drive from downtown Philadelphia and within a two-hour drive of 35 million Americans, John Heinz refuge was established to protect Pennsylvania’s largest remaining tidal marsh from a proposed development that would have rerouted Interstate 95 right through the middle of it. Local residents objected to the development, and lawmakers worked to establish the refuge instead. “I’m glad those residents were around to recognize this important resource,” says Gore.

Refuge manager Lamar Gore surveys the tidal marsh at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. Courtesy Tandem Stills + Motion

Refuge manager Lamar Gore surveys the tidal marsh at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum.

Residents and visitors can now find abundant opportunities to experience nature at the refuge, including 10 miles of trails, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and bicycling. These opportunities also provide a ready-made link between urban outdoorists and outdoor companies and industry stakeholders. Program partnerships are great ways for brands, retailers, outfitters and other businesses to engage with potential customers they might otherwise not have access to and whom the outdoor industry often overlooks.

“At John Heinz, we have a number of different programs going on,” says Gore. “We engage with local schools that come out to the refuge throughout the year.” For many of those kids, an experience at the refuge will be their first real exposure to nature. Summer camps; bird watching tours; fishing, photography and interpretive trips; and other excursions are all part of the regular programming offered at the refuge, says Gore. In addition, special events such as the Darby Creek Clean Up Day, International Migratory Bird Day, Pathways to Fishing, and the Cradle of Birding Festival draw countless longtime and novice outdoorists looking for close-to-home experiences in nature.

Great blue herons and mallard ducks are just two of the over 300 avian species that people have seen on refuge lands since 1950 (decades before the refuge was established). Courtesy Tandem Stills + Motion

Great blue herons and mallard ducks are just two of the over 300 avian species that people have seen on refuge lands since 1950 (decades before the refuge was established).

Soon, the refuge will also offer guided ecology lessons and kayak tours into the tidal marsh in partnership with OIA member brand and retailer L.L. Bean. “A lot of residents are looking forward to that,” says Gore, pointing out that in this community, few people have ever engaged in kayaking.

L.L. Bean helps with other programs, including the refuge’s astronomy night, family fly-fishing seminars and refuge hikes. Other volunteer groups pitch in to lead bird walks and other events, which Gore says are perfect opportunities for outdoor brands and retailers to get involved with the refuge and, by extension, an often overlooked segment of potential customers.

This coming Saturday, October 17, the refuge will sponsor a Tree Philly event as part of the city’s initiative to ensure that every neighborhood has at least 30 percent tree canopy coverage. Events and partnerships like these are unique, valuable and relatively inexpensive ways for brands and retailers to engage with communities on a very personal and local level. Why not piggyback on activation opportunities that someone else plans and orchestrates—you get all the exposure with very little of the logistic responsibilities.

Events and partnerships like these are unique, valuable and relatively inexpensive ways for brands and retailers to engage with communities on a very personal and local level. Why not piggyback on activation opportunities that someone else plans and orchestrates—you get all the exposure with very little of the logistic responsibilities.

At John Heinz in particular, Gore notes the annual summer fishing events and a possible fall fishing event are ripe for brand and retail partnerships and collaborations. Late January’s Groundhog Day Festival is another, says Gore. There are more than 560 national wildlife refuges around the country, and 13 within an hour’s drive of major urban metropolitan areas.

“We’re looking for the best ways to engage and draw in the urban community, and there’s a large population right here in Philadelphia,” says Gore. “We’re looking for any means and any partnership that can help us provide what the local public is interested in. One of the most important aspects of conservation, in my opinion, is the engagement with people.”

To find out about upcoming refuge events, such as birding festivals and photography contests, check John Heinz’s Facebook page.


Read about five other urban refuges from coast to coast and our tips to help outdoor brands and retailers tap into these unique resources.

1. America’s First Urban Wildlife Refuge, Philadelphia’s John Heinz at Tinicum
2. New Orleans’ Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge
3. Portland’s Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge
4. L.A. River and the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge
5. Albuquerque’s Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge
6. Denver’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Visit the Fish and Wildlife Service to find the refuge closest to you.

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