As Dorothy Prowell dips her paddle into the rich, brown swamp water, she cranes her neck to see the tops of the towering, bald cypress trees. Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), a Louisiana wetland, is one of Prowell’s favorite outdoor getaways. “It’s so majestic, vast and wild,” she says. “You can canoe all day through tree cathedrals and watch thousands of wood ducks.”
Located just 30 minutes from Baton Rouge, Cat Island is one of the state’s few unleveed areas, where wetlands naturally rise and fall with the nearby Mississippi River. As a result of development, river diversion, levees and hurricane activity, though, Louisiana’s wetlands are among the world’s most endangered habitats. Fortunately, people like Prowell and organizations like the Friends of Cat Island NWR are helping to preserve and restore this and other at-risk environments across the country. In the process, they’re helping make them accessible to people interested in exploring and learning more about the land and its inhabitants.
This Land Is Your Land
The United States is home to a vast array of landscapes — prairies, deserts, mountains and coastlines — each host to unique ecosystems teeming with animals and plants. As humans settled, explored and cultivated the terrain, however, we disturbed these habitats and their natural processes with little thought to how we fit into them. In the process, we displaced and sometimes destroyed plant and animal species.
Years later, we’re realizing the value they hold, and thanks to preservation legislation and rehabilitation and restoration projects nationwide, many vanishing landscapes are returning to their natural states.
The U.S. National Park Service, for instance, protects 391 unique ecosystems, which cover more than 84 million acres, from the Everglades swamps and Death Valley desert to Hawaiian volcanoes and Virgin Islands coral reefs. These vast national preserves offer a rare opportunity to hike, swim or paddle in pristine environments.
You don’t have to travel across the country to spend time in an endangered area, though. Look around and you’re likely to find state parks or wildlife preserves within an hour or two of your home. Most allow recreational activities, so you can get your exercise while enjoying fresh air and beautiful scenery.
In the Midwest, grasslands-advocate Bill Whitney sees vibrant art where some might see boring flatlands. “The prairie is a colorful mosaic of plant species,” says the executive director of Prairie Plains Resource Institute, a nonprofit land trust in Nebraska that restores and preserves this vanishing landscape. “If you’re out hiking on a sun-drenched afternoon in late summer, when the goldenrod and sunflowers bloom and the tall grasses turn reddish, the land looks like a colorful tapestry,” Whitney adds.
Unlike mountains or beaches, grasslands draw few tourists — and their ecological importance often goes unrecognized. Yet local visitors are aware of the unique outdoor experiences prairies offer.
Colleen Babcock, RD, a Lincoln, Neb.–based health counselor, has hiked, run and bicycled for 17 years at a number of the Prairie Plains preserves. “Getting exercise outdoors relaxes and restores me,” she says. “As I walk or ride, I’m looking, listening and learning about the land, which is always changing. I never get bored exercising on the prairie because there’s so much to notice: the clouds, the angle of the sun, what’s blooming in spring or what’s drying up in the fall.”
Seven Prairie Plains preserves are scattered throughout Nebraska, and Whitney is confident they’ll someday become popular volunteer vacation destinations that will attract both locals and out-of-staters interested in such activities as taking guided prairie walks, collecting and sowing seeds, or hand-planting areas for restoration.
The organization is building an educational center in a historic barn on its Griffith Prairie and Farm, in Hamilton County, to help visitors realize grasslands’ beauty and motivate them to experience it for themselves. In addition, Prairie Plains’ summer daycamp uses the Griffith Prairie and the Olson Nature Preserve, near Albion, to encourage kids to explore the Platte River environment.
Conservation’s Next Generation
For kayaker Kenny Howell, “there’s nothing like the Cosumnes River anywhere else in California.” Program director of California Canoe and Kayak, in Half Moon Bay, Howell paddles the intricate calm-water channels just south of Sacramento on his own and as a tour leader several times each spring.
The preserve’s wild, pristine setting originally drew him to the area. “It’s not tamed, dammed, diked or overmanaged,” Howell explains. “You can paddle through magnificent old-growth forests under a lush canopy of tall oaks. It feels like you’ve escaped to another century. It’s the last remnant of this habitat.”
Which is exactly why many outdoor enthusiasts consider Cosumnes and similar habitats worth saving. Many of these individuals double as volunteers and donate money, put in sweat equity on work days, or help educate visitors about the spaces they love.
Before hiking or launching their canoe or kayak onto the Cosumnes River, for instance, visitors are often welcomed by the preserve’s youngest volunteer naturalist, 10-year-old Marcos Cabrera, who enthusiastically promotes the wonders of the only undammed river that flows from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the ocean. “We have trails and a lot of trees, and you can see lots of animals when you walk along the river,” he explains.
Marcos lives inside the Cosumnes River Preserve with his father, Alex, the preserve’s site coordinator, so he knows nearly every owl, beaver lodge and valley oak in his 46,000-acre “backyard.”
Marcos is a shining example of how people now — and in future generations — will care about the land. Because he and the adult naturalists are there to answer visitor questions and point out Cosumnes’s natural wonders, 40,000 visitors annually realize why this wild area matters to them and the planet. As they enjoy exploring this endangered habitat by foot or boat, they have more incentive to protect it. “I tell people this land is for the natural communities and the diversity of wildlife,” says Marcos.
Whether you visit endangered habitats as a tourist or a volunteer, it’s important to respect these lands and waterways. Some areas might be closed to human traffic or pets because of the ecosystem’s delicate nature. Some activities might be banned; for instance, you might not be able to take your mountain bike on a trail because of erosion concerns, or you might forgo fishing from your rowboat because the aquatic population is threatened.
Still, there are innumerable revived and reviving habitats around the country where you can have an invigorating outdoor experience — whether you choose to hike, paddle or get your hands dirty — while also supporting that ecosystem’s plants, animals and birds. By heading out and appreciating what’s in your neck of the woods, you and nature can rejuvenate together.
Leave No Trace Principles
A quick refresher on the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics’s principles for responsibly enjoying all natural habitats.
1. Plan ahead. Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use. Repackage food to minimize waste.
2. Travel and camp on established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow. Pitch tents at least 200 feet away from lakes and streams. Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
3. Dispose of waste properly. Pack out all trash, leftover food and litter. Deposit solid human waste in holes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, and far from water and trails. For washing, use small amounts of biodegradable soap.
4. Leave what you find. Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them. Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
5. Minimize campfire impacts. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and a candle lantern for light. Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, but keep fires small, burning only sticks from the ground that you can break by hand.
6. Respect wildlife. Observe animals from a distance. Never feed them — it alters their natural behaviors. Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young or winter.
7. Be considerate. Respect other visitors and yield to them on the trail. Avoid using loud voices and making excess noise.
Saving Space, Part Two
More preserves and refuges to explore in your neck of the woods.
Dry Tortugas National Park — Snorkel in a protected coral-reef habitat off the coast of the Florida Keys. 305-242-7700; www.nps.gov/drto
Ramsey Canyon Preserve — Hiking and hummingbird watching (14 species) in this southeastern Arizona habitat where desert and forest blend. 520-378-2785; www.nature.org (Search Arizona nature preserves)
Spring Mountains National Recreation Area — Snow-capped peaks surrounded by the desert, this area is home to 58 threatened plant and animal species. Hiking, climbing, skiing and backpacking near Las Vegas. 702-515-5400; www.fs.fed.us/r4/htnf/districts/smnra.shtml
Tensleep Preserve — In Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, this rugged preserve provides habitat for mountain lions, black bears and rare plants. 307-366-2671; www.nature.org (Search Wyoming nature preserves)
Walama Restoration Project — Rehabilitation of grasslands, waterways and forests within Oregon’s Willamette Valley. 541-484-3939; www.walamarestoration.org