America’s oldest urban refuge turns 50
About a half-mile as the crow flies from the Philadelphia Airport, amid the tidal marsh and mudflats at the southernmost point of Darby Creek, a conservation movement began. It started with a handful of birdwatchers led by a mild-mannered accountant who worked to save this watery habitat from ruin. They prevailed, but this was just one chapter in a long and often fraught story.
The Lenape called the area at the bottom of the Darby Creek Watershed Tennakon Minquas, or “islands of the marsh.” It stretched for more than 5,000 acres and was a plentiful area to fish, hunt, and gather wild rice that grew there. European settlers began filling the marshes to create more land for grazing and farming. Rapid urbanization following World War I saw the Tinicum Marsh shrink to just 200 acres.
In 1953, Natural Lands’ founder, Allston Jenkins, learned of Gulf Oil’s plans to dredge the Schuylkill River and dump the spoils into the Marsh. Fellow birdwatchers and activists joined Allston to form the Philadelphia Conservationists—which later became Natural Lands—to fight the destruction. Their efforts prevented the dumping and led to Gulf Oil’s donation of 145 acres to the City of Philadelphia.
About a decade later, the Marsh faced another threat when planners proposed rerouting Interstate 95 through it. Once again, environmentalists fought back.
Congress designated the Marsh and about 1,000 acres of surrounding lands as a wildlife preserve in 1972, to be cared for by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Today, the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, as it was renamed in 1991, is the largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania.
This year, Heinz Refuge celebrates its 50th anniversary. More than a quarter million visitors come every year to connect with nature along 10 miles of trails in the middle of a bustling city. The Refuge’s manager, Lamar Gore, believes firmly that people are at the heart of this place.
“Our team is working with intention at the Refuge to build deep relationships and connections with the community,” said Gore at a 50th anniversary celebration held in June. “We’re trying to deepen those connections to the point where the community feels empowered to be a part of the work we’re trying to do. Our team works to try to engage a community that’s been systemically excluded from the conservation world. To change what conservation looks like in the future.”
Donna Roberts, granddaughter of the Tinicum Marsh’s first employee, James Carol, also spoke at the celebration event. “My grandfather had such a love for nature from a young age, way before he was an employee here. He would come out as a child because he grew up not far from here, just a few blocks away.”
Roberts described how this urban oasis has touched generations of her family. “This is where I spent my summers. We didn’t have summer camp; we came out here and this was our summer camp. And this was our after-school. This was my grandfather’s peace. We watched him truly light up in this environment. I really miss my grandfather and this place is where I come to feel his love and his presence.”
Lamar Gore added, “We can’t do successful conservation without celebrating people, enjoying and exploring the outdoors with people… that’s the element we’re trying to build into all of our work.”
Natural Lands is proud to include the conservation of these special acres as our founder’s earliest land protection success. We celebrate the Refuge’s long history and bright future of connecting people to the outdoors… and each other. Congratulations on 50 years!