While driving down Highway 77 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, road construction brings me to a halt. As I wait for the construction worker to turn his sign to ‘GO,’ I notice a family of trumpeter swans swimming in a marsh next to the road. I realize I’m sitting in front of Seney Wildlife Refuge, a splash of green on the map representing 95,264 acres. It was a place that I didn’t think I had time to visit, but the swans beckoned me in.
Scattered between small towns and farmland, Seney Wildlife Refuge is by far the largest of the nine wildlife refuges in Michigan operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Setting aside public land for preservation started when people came to the realization that land and animals need protection or they would be lost. In 1872 Yellowstone became the world’s first national park under Ulysses S. Grant. Theodore Roosevelt continued this style of conservation and in 1903 added the wildlife refuge system. The notable difference between the two is that the wildlife refuge system is designed to protect wildlife first and foremost.
The area that is now Seney Wildlife Refuge was not always under this kind of protection. Starting in the 1860s, the lumber industry in Michigan boomed and no land was deemed too sacred. Loggers eventually made their way to Seney, ravaging the forests and burning what was left. Next, land cultivators came in. Swamps were drained and the dried up land sold to farmers. Unfortunately for the farmers, the soil was barren. People moved on but left the land in ruins.
The undesirable land was handed over to the federal government and in 1935 Seney became a wildlife refuge for migrating birds. By this time the Great Depression infected America. In hopes of a cure, Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented many programs under the New Deal, including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which gave jobs to young men. The CCC came in to reverse the damage done by the loggers and farmers until the refuge was restored to a healthy wetland ecosystem consisting of marshes, swamps, and bogs.
After walking the 1.4-mile track, I then drove through the 7-mile Marshland Wildlife Drive. Visiting the refuge now I would have never guessed its history. This land is now considered a Globally Important Bird Area with over 200 species of resident birds. Flocks of swans fill the pools, a red winged blackbird lets out a call above me, and a large raptor circles overhead searching for a meal. There are also 50 species of mammals. Chipmunks sneak elusively out of burrows, and signs of beavers and deer are apparent. The bears and wolves stay hidden in the middle of this hot summer’s day. Twenty-six species of fish, as well as 22 species of reptiles and amphibians live in and around the waters. Sounds of bellowing frogs fill my ears and turtles sunbathe on logs. This is their home. I am only a guest.
I spent about three hours at Seney Wildlife Refuge, but I could have easily stayed longer. Seney deserves a visit. The efforts of many people made this opportunity possible so that generation after generation have a chance to see a different part of Michigan, a different part of our world. This land continues to be maintained to keep the effort going. I appreciate their work and I was able to make time for the visit.
Seney Wildlife Refuge – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Seney/
Rachel Carson (my personal hero): https://www.fws.gov/refuges/history/over/over_main_fs.html