Home WILD READS The Science and Magic of our Wildlife Refuges (w/ Video interview)

The Science and Magic of our Wildlife Refuges (w/ Video interview)

by Bradley Watkins
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Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once wrote that art lies between scientific knowledge and magical thought. Perhaps the same is true of conservation. It requires the careful observations of the scientist striving to understand flora and fauna and their endlessly intricate relationships that comprise Nature’s systems. But it also requires a kind of magic—the passions aroused by observing Nature’s canvas, its complexities, and its interconnections with our own lives. From that combination of science and magic came our National Wildlife Refuge System—a network of 553 refuges spanning 150 million acres.

A century after creation of the first refuge at Pelican Island, their future now rests in our hands. New challenges loom—climate change and ever-fragmenting landscapes. Old challenges persist—contaminants degrade lands and waters; invasive species upset webs of life. These details may require new tactics in refuge management—and, even, the creation of new refuges. But, looking to the future, perhaps the past is a steady guide.

Our nation’s refuges sustain wild places and wildlife. They connect us to a natural world too easily left behind in the hurly, burly modern America in which 80 percent of us live in cities and suburbs. They are many things to many different people. They provide places to hunt and fish; conduct scientific inquiry; amble alone or with our children; peer through a camera in search of that perfect image. For me, I delight, plain and simple, in their beauty.

But this is a beauty tied to art and action; it is a beauty tied to the wonder that springs from better understanding the complex workings of nature. Thus, I seek out national wildlife refuges wherever I go. It is a sort of addiction that has taken me to over 100 refuges—and I have a long additional “bucket list.”

I can think of no greater beauty than a flock of 10,000 snow geese taking flight, rhythmic wings glittering silvery white, traveling together, first one way, then the other—an Escher print of interconnected patterns and movement.

But there is beauty in emergent knowledge, too—learning from a refuge biologist just how tricky it is to restore water flows in wetlands long ago diked, ditched, and drained; or learning about the biological transitions of salmon as they navigate between fresh water and salt water; or learning about the wondrous marbled murrelet chick that, barely a month old, flies miles from its nest to the sea.

At refuges, I nourish my soul at places that, really, belong to Earth’s other creatures. I awoke one morning several years ago on Midway Island to see and hear 1.5 million albatrosses, beaks pointed upward, clacking. The air vibrated. Terns and gulls squawked and screamed and careened overhead. I was an intruder. I was humbled—and moved, once again, to celebrate the national wildlife refuges. Thus, I come full circle back to science and magic. Past is prelude. Whatever details define refuges of the future, let us strengthen them as places of learning. Let us sustain the glory that is their magic.

Lynn Scarlett, Scholar in Residence, Resources for the Future

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