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10 Cities Campaign: SoCal Urban Wildlife Refuge Project


Video produced for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service by Tandem Stills + Motion in collaboration with The National Wildlife Refuge Association. 

In 2014, the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex led the charge in responding to a question posed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: How can we help connect the 80% of Americans living in cities with nature, and create a sustainable conservation constituency around principles of conservation and stewardship?

The SoCal Urban Wildlife Refuge Project is an innovative response to a question without a simple answer. Reaching new audiences requires more than inviting people to visit and participate in programs; identifying and removing barriers to engagement means engaging a diverse array of partners to develop and implement programs that bring refuges to the people. From nonprofits to schools to zoos, SoCal Urban Wildlife Refuge Project partners are meeting people where they live, work, learn, and play.

“Our partners provide the spark and access for communities, neighborhoods, schools, and families to be welcomed into the National Wildlife Refuge System,” wrote Andy Yuen, Project Leader for the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

In a region with more than 17 million people stretching over 250 miles, the challenge is daunting. But thanks to the efforts of community-based partners, more southern Californians than ever have been reached by a SoCal UWRP program. In San Diego, The Earth Discovery Institute, Living Coast Discovery Center, Ocean Connectors, Outdoor Outreach, and San Diego Audubon Society provide a suite of programs to connect people to nature both on and off San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The San Diego Zoo Global Program and the Institute for Conservation Research offer programs aimed at fostering environmental literacy and stewardship, using a hands-on approach to teach kids about the day to day responsibilities of refuge staff.

In the north, the Project is anchored by the Ventura Fish & Wildlife office, the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex, and their partners at the Santa Barbara Zoo and Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Despite living at the foot of the mountain refuge complex, many urban residents are unaware that they are mere miles away from the incredibly successful California Condor Recovery Program, which has brought the iconic birds back from the brink of extinction. In the town of Fillmore, the partners have created the CondorKids project, which provides students and teachers with a full conservation-focused curriculum, including classroom instruction and field visits.

Los Angeles is the largest metro in the SoCal region, and also the most disconnected from the refuge system. Unlike San Diego and Ventura, there is no refuge close to the urban center or even in the county (Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge is located in neighboring Orange County, on the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station.) What it does have is an urban river that is undergoing a multi-billion dollar restoration effort, and a dedicated network of environmental nonprofits that are leading efforts to educate Angelenos about the potential of the often overlooked waterway. Although the city is surrounded by public lands, many of the city’s residents live in areas with little or no access to green space, creating a greater disconnect with nature. Restoring the river will not only create a greenbelt of habitat for native plants and animals, but for people.

Rather than wait until the project is completed, the process of revitalization offers a unique opportunity to bring people to the river. The Los Angeles Conservation Corps RiverCorps brings at-risk young adults to the river by providing job skills and training, as well as education about everything from conservation and ecology to landscaping and hydrology. RiverCorps members work on conservation and cleanup projects, and lead kayak tours for the public as they work toward completing school, and some even go on to pursue degrees and careers in conservation.

Bringing the river to the people requires some innovative thinking and a really big vehicle. The Friends of the LA River’s (FoLAR) River Rover is a mobile education center that goes into schools and neighborhood events with the purpose of educating people about river issues and the wildlife that exists all around them. Not only does it encourage people to get engaged with planning for the river, it educates them about the river’s impact on everything from flooding in Taylor Junction to water quality in Long Beach.

While it might seem like an unusual partnership, it has turned out to be a successful (and replicable) model that can be used in other urban areas.

“The LA River has been perceived as a dangerous and not necessarily a destination. It was clear that FoLAR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were working toward the same goal — connecting people in densely populated areas to nature. Together we have connected over 30,000 people to the river through our River Rover programs,” says Shelly Backlar, VP of Programs for FoLAR.

“Now we have the opportunity to connect people to places where concrete will be removed from the LA River and wetland habitat will be restored. Wow. It still amazes me to say that out loud,” she added.

Looking at the scope and impact of the SoCal Urban Wildlife Refuge Project over the last four years, “Wow” might be the best way to sum it up.

Blog Contributor: Angelina Horn, SoCal Regional Refuge Partnership Specialist

Get Involved:

The Great LA River Cleanup (April 14-28, 2018)
Conservation Corps Volunteers


NWRA’s Urban Refuge Program – Protecting our Conservation Future strives to reach beyond refuge boundaries to engage with and connect people of all ages to nature and our Refuge System.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2018/04/10-cities-campaign-socal-urban-wildlife-refuge-project/

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