The Future of Conservation Is…Urban?

by Miles Starr Radin, SCA Intern

“Are we gonna see a gorilla?!” one student asks as she steps off the bus. For most, it is their first time at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) at Tinicum in Philadelphia.

As Ranger Kelly Kemmerle reminds them that they are not that far from home, she lists off a few animals they might actually meet: a white-tailed deer, a bald eagle, a blue jay. As their excitement builds and morphs into curiosity, this is the moment staff work for. Spurring curiosity is at the heart of the environmental education program at America’s First Urban Refuge. 

These students are part of the Philly Nature Kids program, a year-long and immersive project designed to stimulate interest in nature. Six classes of fourth grade students from local schools are given the chance to explore the refuge through trips and environmental education classes with refuge staff. The students meet with SCA interns, Environmental Education Supervisor Brianna Amingwa, and other John Heinz NWR staff twice a month.

Young visitors explore Tinicum Marsh (photo by Miles Starr Radin)

At first, rangers and interns bring hands-on lessons to the students in their classrooms, ranging from nature journaling to observing macroinvertebrates using microscopes. For my first class, we designed a wetland in a pan, and watched how a city might flood without a wetland nearby. Students are then brought to the refuge to expand on those concepts. Staff hope that if the school children enjoy these trips, they will continue their own outdoor discovery, perhaps by joining the Philly Nature Kids summer camp at John Heinz NWR, or by visiting a refuge on their own.

On the surface, Philadelphia may seem like a strange place for a wildlife refuge; it’s the sixth largest city in the U.S., and the second largest on the East Coast. This particular location – surrounded by highways and homes – is one of the reasons John Heinz NWR is an oasis for people and wildlife, especially migratory birds. It is also one of the reasons its education programs are so important. 

As the majority of Americans live in cities (80% according to the U.S. Census Bureau), urban refuges are one of the few ways that city youth can explore nature. For some, it may be their only chance to do so. The program aims to develop early connections to nature in hopes of inspiring lifelong stewardship. Inviting youth here could unlock their appreciation for natural spaces, as well as diversify the visitors of public lands. Without programs like this, the numbers of conservationists may begin to dwindle, and therefore, the number of those who vote to protect them.

Of the many American values, I believe conservation to be one of them. As an SCA intern, I’ve had the privilege to showcase one of our national wildlife refuges to a future generation of conservation leaders. For many students, the white-tailed deer, the bald eagle, or the blue jay they see today could spark their interest for wildlife. Each visit could be the ticket for a lifelong support of environmental protection; the start of their chapter in our national conservation story. 

Environmental Education Supervisor Brianna Amingwa teaches a new student archery, one of the six major wildlife-dependent recreational activities listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. (Photo by Miles Starr Radin)