President Theodore Roosevelt established Pelican Island in Florida as the first national wildlife refuge on March 14, 1903. He was responding not only to an urgent need to conserve our vulnerable natural resources, but also to the passionate advocacy of Americans who understood that our nation’s strength lies in the conservation of our wild lands and unique species.
Over the course of his presidency, Roosevelt established 53 wildlife refuges, from Key West’s mangrove islands and sand flats to Flattery Rock along Washington State’s coast.
Today, on the Refuge System’s 109th birthday, the National Wildlife Refuge spans more than 150 million acres, across 556 wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts. The National Wildlife Refuge System is the nation’s premiere network of public lands dedicated to the conservation of America’s land and waters, its fish, wildlife and plants.
From the Arctic to the Caribbean, the Atlantic to the Pacific, America’s wildlife refuges are in every state and U.S. territory. Wildlife refuges conserve habitat that is essential to more than 700 species of birds, 220 types of mammals, 250 varieties of reptiles and amphibians, more than 1,000 species of fish, and uncounted invertebrates and plants. They sustain nearly 300 of the nation’s more than 1,300 endangered or threatened species.
The National Wildlife Refuge System does not only benefit wildlife. The refuges also play a critical role for our communities. By protecting wetlands, grasslands, forests, wilderness and other natural habitats, wildlife refuges improve air and water quality, relieve flooding, improve soil quality and trap greenhouse gases. Wildlife refuges also benefit local economies, drawing visitors to local communities and supporting jobs tied to conservation and outdoor recreation.
I am especially proud of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in my home state of Maryland. Blackwater contains roughly one-third of all of the tidal wetlands in the state of Maryland, and provides critical storm protection to lower Dorchester County, Maryland. Home to one of the largest breeding populations of American bald eagles on the East Coast, Blackwater Refuge is recognized as a “Wetlands of International Importance” by the Ramsar Convention and has been called one of the “Last Great Places” by the Nature Conservancy. Blackwater also plays a critical economic role in Maryland, attracting approximately 200,000 visitors annually and providing an important economic engine for our Eastern Shore communities.
The Blackwater Refuge is a place of great ecological and economic value, but more than that, it is a place of deep historic value. One of the most important heroes in our nation’s history lived and bravely worked within the boundaries of Blackwater. To commemorate this history, I have introduced legislation to create two National Historical Parks – one within the Blackwater Refuge and one in New York – to honor the legacy of Harriet Ross Tubman for her work on the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman was born within the Blackwater boundary, and conducted much of her courageous work there leading other slaves northward to freedom. I am deeply committed to ensuring that her legacy is celebrated within the Blackwater Refuge. This is part of the beauty of the National Wildlife Refuge System: by preserving the ecological integrity of our treasured lands, we also preserve an important link to our nation’s past.
In an increasingly urban and high-speed world, our National Wildlife Refuges — islands of natural beauty — offer Americans priceless places to soothe or stir the soul, educate the mind, and invigorate the body. I am pleased today to recognize the anniversary of this valuable system.