More than 17 million people live and work in the Chesapeake watershed, encompassing 64,000 square miles and parts of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, New York and the entire District of Columbia. That translates into a busy world full of roads, parking lots, malls, schools, houses and office buildings. In this increasingly concrete world, we need wild places to explore and discover nature. These places also help to calm our unusually busy agendas and help us reflect upon our lives.

Our wildlife needs these natural areas, too. The forests, meadows, wetlands, islands, shorelines, creeks and rivers provide our wildlife with food and water and nesting and resting places. These natural areas, also known as habitats are critical to the survival of native plants, insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals and more.

The National Wildlife Refuge system is a network of public lands set aside specifically for the conservation of fish, wildlife and plants. Through the system, waterways, grasslands, wetlands and woodlands have been protected and restored, providing much-needed habitat for U.S. wildlife. Refuges contain a priceless gift — wild lands and the perpetuation of diverse and abundant wildlife that are an essential part of our U.S. heritage.

Since President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida’s Pelican Island as the first refuge in 1903, the National Wildlife Refuge System has grown to include more than 560 refuges, 38 wetland management districts and other protected areas encompassing 150 million acres of land and water from the Caribbean to the remote Pacific. There is at least one national wildlife refuge in every state and territory and within an hour’s drive of most major metropolitan areas.

Refuges provide habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, more than 1,000 species of fish, and countless species of invertebrates and plants. More than 380 threatened or endangered plants or animals are protected on wildlife refuges. Each year, millions of migrating birds use refuges as stepping stones while flying thousands of miles between their summer and winter homes.

Refuges are great for people, too. About 98 percent of the land in the National Wildlife Refuge system is open to the public for wildlife-dependent education and recreation.

In 1997, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act was passed to ensure that the system is managed for the protection and conservation of our nation’s wildlife resources. The act also directed expanding opportunities for public recreational activities, including photography, fishing, hunting, wildlife observation, environmental education and interpretation.

Depending on the refuge, visitors may explore by car, foot, bike, canoe or kayak. Birding, wildlife observation and photography are some activities that visitors can enjoy. Hunting, fishing, and trapping are also permitted on certain refuges.

Depending on the refuge, one can find visitor centers, wildlife observation facilities, auto tours, interpretive trails and tours, outdoor classrooms or workshops. These activities help build an understanding and appreciation for wildlife, habitat and the role management plays in the stewardship of U.S. resources. Refuges welcome more than 45 million visitors each year.

Visitors can explore refuges any time of the year, but autumn is an especially good time to visit. National Wildlife Refuge Week is Oct. 11–17. Refuges will be offering special events that include tours, guided wildlife walks, exhibits, live animals, crafts and children’s activities. Do something wild this year and check out a refuge — chances are there is one close to you.

For information about the National Wildlife Refuge system, call 800-344-WILD or see fws.gov/refuges/

National Wildlife Refuges in the Chesapeake Watershed

  • Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge: Smyrna, DE. 302-653-6872, fws.gov/refuge/bombay_hook/
  • Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge: Milton, DE. 302-684-8419, fws.gov/refuge/prime_hook/
  • Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge: Cambridge, MD. 410-228-2267, fws.gov/refuge/blackwater
  • Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge: Rock Hall, MD. 410-639-7056, fws.gov/refuge/eastern_neck
  • Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge: Laurel, MD. 301-497-5580, fws.gov/refuge/patuxent
  • John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum: Philadelphia. 215-365-3118, fws.gov/refuge/john_heinz
  • Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge: Virginia Beach. 757-721-2412, fws.gov/refuge/back_bay
  • Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge: Chincoteague, VA. 757-336-6122, fws.gov/refuge/chincoteague/
  • Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge: Cape Charles, VA. 757-31-2760, fws.gov/refuge/eastern_shore_of_virginia/
  • Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge: Lorton, VA. 703-490-4979, fws.gov/refuge/mason_neck/
  • Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge: Woodbridge, VA. 703-490-4979, fws.gov/refuge/Featherstone/ (accessible by boat only; see website or call for details)
  • Great Dismal Swamp: Suffolk, VA. 757-986-3705, fws.gov/refuge/great_dismal_swamp
  • James River National Wildlife Refuge: Hopewell, VA. 804-829-9020, fws.gov/refuge/james_river/ (reservations required; see website or call for details)
  • Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge: Woodbridge, VA. 703-490-4979, fws.gov/refuge/occoquan_bay/
  • Presquile National Wildlife Refuge: Chester, VA. 804-829-9020, fws.gov/refuge/presquile/ (reservations required; see website or call for details)
  • Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex: Warsaw, VA. 804-333-1470 x1, fws.gov/refuge/rappahannock_river_valley/
  • Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge: Davis, WV. 304-866-3858, fws.gov/refuge/canaan_valley/