U.S. commits extra $1 million annually to Heinz refuge for education, community connection

Children visiting the  John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum learn about bald eagles. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Children visiting the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum learn about bald eagles. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is an urban oasis, about 1,000 acres of forest, meadows and marshes spanning the border of industrial Southwest Philadelphia and Delaware County. 

Bound by the airport and I-95, it may seem strange place for hundreds of species of birds, frogs, butterflies, deer and other wildlife to call home or for the state’s largest freshwater tidal marsh.

It’s one of 10-year-old Mouhamad Hine’s favorite spots.

“We observe animals, like here we’re today observing a bald eagle’s nest,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll look for hummingbirds, crickets.”

Mouhamad was visiting with his fourth grade class from Patterson Elementary, one of three nearby Philadelphia schools that receive environmental education through the refuge. The class had helped build an enormous, life-sized bald eagle nest out of sticks, their sneakers trampling a thick carpet of green ground cover dotted with small yellow flowers. 

Thursday morning, officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the natural area, announced it will be pumping an additional $1 million each year into the refuge.

“That’s not a one-time grant, that’s $1 million that will be here this year, it will be here next year, and it be here the years following that,” said Dan Ashe, the agency’s director. “And that money is going to support additional work in educating young children, it’s going to support additional work in connecting the surrounding communities to the refuge.”

The additional federal funding will bring the educational program to a fourth Southwest Philadelphia school. Officials said it will also continue efforts to employ about 100 teenagers each year on projects to create parks and community gardens on vacant lots in the city and to clear a bike trail connecting the refuge to the citywide “circuit” trail. The bike trail project is expected to be completed next year. 

Refuge manager Lamar Gore said the extra money will also allow him to hire five more staffers, pay for a redesign of the visitor center and install new signage on the paths that wind through the refuge.

Another of Gore’s goals is to increase public transit access.

“About a half-mile from the refuge gate there’s a bus stop and three buses from SEPTA go past there,” he said. “We’re anxious to try to work out an arrangement where we can get at least one or two of those buses into the refuge.”

For now, the focus will be on projects supporting four surrounding neighborhoods of Eastwick, Paschall, Kingsessing and Cobbs Creek. Gore would like to eventually expand outreach efforts to other parts of the city and into Delaware County. Right now, the relationship between the refuge and Eastwick residents is particularly strong. 

That’s because the refuge has been involved in efforts by the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition to reclaim a neighborhood that had been destabilized by a failed urban renewal project in the 1950s that displaced about 8,000 residents.

In recent years, the coalition has been pushing city officials to deal with the area’s chronic flooding problems, and it fended off an attempt by a developer to build apartments on 128 acres of vacant land adjacent to the refuge. Residents were concerned that the development would worsen the flooding that has inundated the area for years. 

Last year, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority ended a longstanding redevelopment agreement with the developer, Korman Corp., and took back control of the land. In December, the authority voted on a resolution that gave the airport a four-year window to purchase the property, but also committed to conducting a wetlands assessment and community planning process to determine how the land should be used.

Many residents, including coalition president Terry Williams, would like to see the 128 acres become a “mixed-use” development — not of buildings, but a combination of urban farmland, parks and bike trails.

“We definitely want the refuge to play a great role in planning it,” said Williams, who is encouraged by the additional federal resources that will be flowing into the area.

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