SAGINAW – Tom Cook is an avid outdoorsman who has traveled extensively, yet he ranks a natural area next to a mid-Michigan city among his favorite places for birding: the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.
“Shiawassee is a really interesting place, and it’s unusual to have a wildlife refuge next to a city,” said Cook, who is executive director of The Cook Family Foundation in Owosso, Mich.
The federally owned facility is considered an urban refuge because it borders the city of Saginaw. These days, the 9,800-acre refuge — which is a haven for wildlife, particularly migratory birds — is being touted as a regional asset that could help revitalize Saginaw’s post-industrial economy.
“A lot of people who live here take the refuge for granted,” said Mike Hanley, chairman of the Saginaw County Board of Commissioners and owner of the Big Ugly Fish tavern in downtown Saginaw. “They know about it, but they don’t go out and enjoy it.”
Hanley is one of several community leaders who believe the refuge could play a role in improving Saginaw’s quality of life and economy by introducing more local residents to the facility and luring more outdoor enthusiasts to the area.
“People who visit this area and are pleasantly surprised by what they experience become some of our best ambassadors,” Hanley said.
The sprawling refuge is sandwiched between Saginaw and miles of farmland, at the confluence of four rivers. It gives rise to the Saginaw River, which flows into Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron.
As one of the largest wetland ecosystems in Michigan, the refuge is an important rest stop for migratory birds that make biannual journeys across North America. More than 270 species of birds, along with numerous species of fish and mammals, have been observed at the site.
Two Mott Foundation grantees, The Conservation Fund and The Nature Conservancy, have worked extensively with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in recent years to improve the refuge and make it more relevant and accessible to nearby residents.
In 2012, the refuge was one of four federal properties across the U.S. chosen for a Federal Lands Livability Initiative. The program is an effort to improve so-called gateway communities — those in close proximity to national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other federally owned properties — by strengthening ties between cities and federal lands.
A Livability Initiative report concluded the refuge is a “major natural resource hub for the region.” But it noted that new sidewalks, bike lanes and bus routes are needed to help more people in Saginaw visit the site.
Each year, about 80,000 people visit the site: birders, hunters, anglers, hikers and schoolchildren on field trips. More people would visit if getting there were easier, said Mike Kelly, director of the Conservation Fund’s Great Lakes office.
People who cannot get to the refuge are missing a rare nature experience. The facility is one of the few national wildlife refuges that allows motorists to drive through federally protect land. A 6.5-mile road winds through the heart of property, giving visitors up-close views of wildlife.
“We’re working to attract more people to the wildlife drive, and encouraging communities around the refuge to consider trail extensions and bus routes that further increase public use of the site,” Kelly said.
In 2014, The Nature Conservancy purchased the former Germania Town and Country Club in Saginaw and donated it to the wildlife refuge. Long a barrier between a working-class neighborhood and the refuge, the 135-acre former golf course is now a bridge between a distressed urban area and a vast natural area teeming with wildlife.
“We’re excited to see how conservation can benefit urban communities, right here in the heart of Saginaw,” said Helen Taylor, director The Nature Conservancy’s Michigan chapter.
Cook said it’s nice to see the refuge, which was derided as a worthless swamp before being declared a national wildlife refuge in 1953, recognized as a community asset. “Attitudes toward the refuge are changing,” he said.