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New Niche Market: National Wildlife Refuges

March 22, 2010 By: George Dooley

One often forgotten market niche opportunity may be the attractions of wildlife and the U.S. National Wildlife Refuges. Managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge System includes more than 150 million acres encompassing the 551 units.

According to a recent study by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, nearly 35 million people visited national wildlife refuges in 2006, supporting almost 27,000 private sector jobs and producing about $543 million in employment income. About 87 percent of refuge visitors travel from outside the local area, the service reports.

One plus is that travelers get in touch with U.S. history, with refuges including areas that once served as rice mills, oyster processing plants, logging and mining camps and many other reminders of bygone eras of America’s past. Others were home to cattle ranches, salt producers, sugar mills, guano extractors and fish packagers.

Mandated by Congress through a host of laws dating back to 1906, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the remains of these historical enterprises as cultural resources and interprets the most significant through exhibits and displays for visitors.

“We all want a sense of connection to the past,” says Greg Siekaniec, assistant director for the National Wildlife Refuge System. “These places are important because they offer us lessons in how people managed — or mis-managed — the land in the past so we can better protect it for the future.”

Some ventures, however, left little behind. Loggers, for example, pulled up even rail tracks when they moved on. Some remnants are hidden deep in swamps or other hard-to-reach places and may be off limits lest they tempt looters or disturb areas of sensitive wildlife habitat.

In the South

Savannah National Wildlife Refuge covers thousands of acres of tidal marsh along the Georgia and South Carolina banks of the Savannah River. Near the refuge entrance is the brick foundation of a low country rice mill that predates the Civil War. The mill was part of the 500-acre Laurel Hill Plantation, run, like its neighbors, by slave labor. Converted in later years into a rough-and-tumble tavern, fittingly named the Bucket of Blood, the building was destroyed by fire in the 1950s. An interpretive panel now tells its story.

Richard Kanaski, regional historic preservation officer and regional archaeologist for the Southeast region, says such cultural resources can attract many visitors who then become excited about the conservation work going on at the refuge. Historic remains help tie people to the landscape, says Kanaski, who relates the history of the brickwork to refuge visitors.

Today, the Savannah Refuge staff manages the refuge land for waterfowl, using basically the same impoundment system used by the region’s 19th-century rice farmers. In fact, they’ve found that their predecessors’ hand crafted wooden culverts, called rice trunks, work better than newer metal culverts and aren’t prone to rust.

Moving West

In eastern Oregon’s high desert, it is curiosity about the Old West as much as the spectacular concentration of birds and wildlife that draws visitors to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Two largely intact cattle ranches, dating back to the 1880s and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, once supported 30,000 head of cattle and more than 1,000 horses for the Eastern Oregon Land and Livestock Company. Headquarters for the operation was the P Ranch, which today includes an old horse barn, hay derrick and a beef wheel — one of the few remaining in the West — to hoist and process slaughtered cows.

The Sod House Ranch, at the north end of the Blitzen Valley, includes corrals, a horse barn, chicken coop, grain storage shed, harness shed and a bunkhouse for buckaroos (a variation from Spanish word “vaqueros”), as cowboys were known. The P Ranch is open year-round from dawn to dusk. The Sod House Ranch is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. from August 15 to October 15. Tours of the Sod House Ranch are available daily without appointment.

Carla Burnside, refuge archaeologist, says some visitors come merely as history buffs and leave with a newfound interest in conservation. They learn from ranch interpreters how the refuge uses historical techniques of haying and grazing these days to manage habitat for waterfowl. “Basically, we’re preparing the meadows for spring migrating birds,” says Burnside. “By removing growth from that year, we help shorter grass green up sooner in spring, providing green forage for the cranes and geese and ducks.”

The past is ever present at Oklahoma’s Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge, which was created to provide habitat for migratory birds. More than 65 years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Washita River as part of a flood control project, submerging much of the 13,000-acre Washita Farm in the process. Concrete rooftops of the 90-year-old farm, once an agricultural showplace, now poke through the surface of Lake Texoma. Still standing on dry land and visible to visitors from the refuge entrance roadway are 14 grain silos, a hog barn and a chicken operation where two incubators once ran nonstop, handling up to 22,000 eggs at a time. Interpretive panels tell the story, and during daylight hours, visitors can take a self-guided driving tour of the old farm. An interpretive brochure and map are available at the entrance kiosk, the refuge headquarters or the farm museum.

The farm’s headquarters, containing remnants of a blacksmith shop and a meat locker, is used today as the refuge’s administrative offices. Visitors can also see the farm chaplain’s house, just converted into a museum called the Washita Farm Heritage Center. The museum (open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, or by appointment) contains historic farm tools, household appliances, furniture and photos. Visitors can also schedule historic farm tours led by the Johnston County Historical Society. Other structures, such as the old hog barn, now used to store refuge tractors, and the chicken hatchery, are being evaluated for structural soundness. A special tour each April, during the Arbuckle Simpson Nature Festival, lets visitors view closed buildings. A brochure, provided by refuge staff, tells the farm’s history. Refuge staff plan to put the brochure online soon.

The refuge staff tries to tie the land’s past to the Service’s conservation mission. “We farm about 1,000 acres a year of wheat and corn — the same crops they grew,” says Refuge manager Kristopher Patton. “While people historically marketed all their crops for human consumption, we leave crops in the field for wildlife, whether resident deer or migrating geese.”

Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge, Kauai, Hawaii

The Ho`opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill, the only rice mill left in Hawaii located on the refuge and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, offers tours by reservation on Wednesdays. Except for this tour, the refuge is closed to the public. To make a reservation, contact by email [email protected]g or call 808-651-3399. You can also visit the rice mill website at:

Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge, Colville, Washington

An old railroad grade, remnants of several trestles and an intact cabin — called the Winslow Cabin — are evidence of an early 20th-century logging camp, which lasted until the Winslow Lumber Mill was destroyed by fire about 1936. Visitors with a trained eye may also see the remains of some old cross ties and railroad spikes. The refuge brochure, available in the visitor center, contains a brief mention of the camp; the refuge is developing an interpretive plan, still some years off.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.



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