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The U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System of Parks and Preserves are public lands set aside to protect wildlife from extinction, over hunting and habitat loss. The National Wildlife Refuge System (NWR) is different from the National Park Service.The NPS is composed of 59 national parks scattered across the U.S. with unique land features and ecosystems. The the National Wildlife Refuge System has over 500 preserves in all 50 states with much more land and marine environments to protect and manage.
The first NWR, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Teddy Roosevelt was an avid outdoorsman and environmental conservationist. There were many more lands added to the NWR as it became clear that many forms of wildlife including mammals, birds, reptiles etc., were being wiped out by the rapid urbanization of land, industrialization, habitat loss and pollution.
Florida is home to over 20 NWR’s and one that I am familiar with is Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. Ding Darling NWR takes up a large part of Sanibel Island at just over 6,400 acres of mangrove forests, sea grass beds, and salt water lakes and rivers. Ding Darling NWR was named after Jay Norwood Darling who resisted efforts to have the land turned over to commercial interests and land developers. Harry Truman designated the area as a national refuge in 1945. The refuge is now home to thousands of migratory birds and marine life and is visited by thousands of people every year.
There is a great visitor center at the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge with full size replicas of mangrove forests, birds and other wildlife. They have guest lecturers every year to talk about birds of Florida and national conservation efforts and an active volunteer group called the Ding Darling Wildlife Society. If you like to kayak, or take nature trips to see dolphins and birds there is the Tarpon Bay Explorers who rent out kayaks, and give boat tours in the preserve. Most visitors take a drive through the preserve, about a five mile loop and stop to look at various parts of the preserve where migratory birds are wading, swimming or nesting. It’s one of the only places I have seen white pelicans. If you are there to take pictures of birds it’s best to bring a telescopic lens to get full size pictures but you may be lucky to get close up pictures of birds that are walking or standing on the lakesides, mangroves or roadsides.