The Chesapeake Bay watershed's 64,000-square miles encompass more than 16 million people who live and work in the region. This translates into a lot of roads, parking lots, malls, schools, houses and office buildings. In this increasingly concrete world, there is a need for wild places where one can explore and discover nature. These places also help us to calm our unusually busy agendas and reflect on our lives.

Wildlife need these natural areas, too. The forests, meadows, wetlands, islands, shorelines, creeks and rivers provide animals with food and water as well as places to nest and rest. These natural areas - 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, other wildlife and plants, including endangered and threatened species. Prairies, wetlands and woodlands have been protected and restored through the National Wildlife Refuge system, providing much needed habitat for North American wildlife.

National Wildlife Refuges contain a priceless gift - the heritage of a wild United States. Wild lands and the perpetuation of diverse and abundant wildlife are essential to the quality of U.S. life.

Established in 1903, the National Wildlife Refuge system provides habitat for more than 700 bird species, 220 mammal species, 250 reptile and amphibian species, more than 200 fish species, and countless numbers of invertebrates and plants. Nearly 280 threatened or endangered species are found in U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, where they often begin their recovery or hold their own against extinction.

Refuges are great for people, too. They provide opportunities to see wildlife in a natural environment. Many refuges have interpretive foot and vehicular trails. Birding, hiking, biking, wildlife observation and photography are some of the activities that visitors can enjoy. Hunting, fishing and trapping are sometimes permitted on refuges. Visitor centers offer exhibits, videos and slide shows.

About 98 percent of the land in the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge system is open to the public for wildlife-dependent education and recreation.

More than 50 percent of the refuges offer recreational hunting and fishing. Refuge visitors include hunters, anglers, wildlife watchers, school groups and photographers.

Recent legislation, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, called for expanding opportunities for several public uses including wildlife photography, fishing, hunting, wildlife observation, environmental education and interpretation.

Depending on the refuge, one might find a visitor center, wildlife observation facilities, auto tours, nature trails, interpretive tours, outdoor classrooms or workshops. These activities help to build an understanding and appreciation for wildlife, habitat and the role management plays in the stewardship of U.S. resources.