By Maite Arce, President and CEO of Hispanic Access Foundation, and Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife
If you have ever been to Western Riverside County in Southern California, you might not believe that a plan to create a refuge for wildlife could be possible in this rapidly developing area. Hispanic Access Foundation and Defenders of Wildlife have teamed up to advocate for a new Western Riverside National Wildlife Refuge in southern California, which would provide access to a rapidly-disappearing natural landscape for some 12 million people within 25 miles of the area, as well as vital habitat for many vulnerable species of plants and animals.
Between 2001 and 2017, California lost more than one million acres of natural area due to urban development, greatly affecting the state’s spectacular biodiversity and limiting communities’ access to nature. Today, 74 percent of communities of color in the contiguous U.S. live in nature-deprived areas, compared with 23 percent of white residents. To protect more natural area for the benefit of people and wildlife in southern California, Congress is considering legislation that would establish the new Western Riverside National Wildlife Refuge.
If you’re not familiar with the National Wildlife Refuge System, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages more than 560 refuges nationwide dedicated to conserving wildlife and important habitats. While many are in remote wilderness and not easily accessible, some refuges are within city boundaries, offering unique opportunities for people to connect with nature, from hiking and birdwatching to fishing and environmental education. Research showing a society-wide decline in connecting with nature makes this access to green spaces more important than ever.
Thanks to a bipartisan group of members of Congress led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA), the proposed legislation would establish the refuge on nearly 500,000 acres that include habitat for at least 146 species—33 of which are threatened or endangered. The establishment of this wildlife refuge would also conserve wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity and provide access to nature for the area’s sizable nearby Latino community. We’re excited to see the broad support for this legislation and are working together to ensure its passage.
When the Hispanic Access Foundation began working on this effort with Defenders of Wildlife during the summer of 2020, we found a significant need for greater access to nature and tremendous interest in establishing a wildlife refuge within the surrounding community. Historically, decisions affecting the local environment have been made without the communities’ input, even though there is a longstanding commitment and culture of caring about the environment that runs deep throughout Latinos.
That’s what’s so exciting about our partnership. We have been successful at harnessing the collective energy of diverse voices and key stakeholders to focus on our shared goals to save nature and provide engaged communities more access to it. Together we are committed to ensuring this wildlife refuge designation becomes a reality.
By virtue of its location, Western Riverside National Wildlife Refuge would be an incredible gateway to nature for an otherwise underserved population. The refuge would provide equitable access to nature, a core tenet of the Hispanic Access Foundation’s mission while protecting the biodiversity that’s at the heart of Defenders’ mission. The tremendous benefits an urban wildlife refuge can provide people, such as outdoor classrooms, hiking, camping, fishing and other recreational pursuits, for the enjoyment of nature cannot be overemphasized.
The designation of this new refuge is about more than wildlife; it is a refuge for people too. A fertile marsh supporting migratory birds and other wildlife within sight of skyscrapers may not be the wild tundra or sandy beaches of other national wildlife refuges, but visiting an urban refuge can have the same effect: a lasting connection to the natural world.
It’s time to introduce the bill to establish the Western Riverside National Wildlife Refuge—for nature and for us all.