More than 16 million people live and work in the Chesapeake Bay watershed's 64,000 square miles. That translates into a lot 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 reflect on our lives.

Our wildlife needs these natural areas, too. These forests, fields, wetlands, creeks and rivers are habitats-places where animals find food and water as well as nesting and resting places. Natural 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 wildlife and plants, including endangered and threatened species. The National Wildlife Refuge System has protected and restored prairies, wetlands and woodlands, providing much needed habitat for wildlife in the United States.

Established in 1903, this system spans almost 100 million acres and includes 548 national wildlife refuges. It provides habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, more than 1,000 fish and countless species of invertebrates and plants. Nearly 260 threatened or endangered species are found on 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 activities that visitors can enjoy. Visitor centers offer exhibits, videos and slide shows.

About 98 percent of the land in the 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.

Recently, new legislation-the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act-directed the expansion of opportunities for several public uses including wildlife photography, fishing, hunting, wildlife observation, environmental education and interpretation.

Depending on the refuge, one may find visitor centers, 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 that management plays in the stewardship of U.S. resources.

Mark your calendars. National Wildlife Refuge Week is October 12-18. Refuges will be offering special events, including tours, guided walks, exhibits, live animals, crafts, children's activities and lots more.

Chances are there's a refuge close to you. So spice up your autumn and check out something wild at a refuge!

Nearby Wildlife Refuges

For information about the National Wildlife Refuge system, call 800-344-WILD or visit