Art of Aging: Community activists help create, protect Philadelphia's urban wildlife refuge

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Thursday, August 18, 2022
Community activists help create, protect urban wildlife refuge
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A grassroots effort that began in the 1970s spurred Congress to establish what was America's first urban refuge in 1972.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Jean Diehl and Leonard Stewart both grew up enjoying what is now, the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Southwest Philadelphia.

"78 years ago, I could sit on my doorstep and watch the fall and spring migration of birds," says Diehl, an honorary board member of the Friends of Heinz Refuge.

But even now, she says every time she visits the refuge she gets "renewed."

Stewart, a member of the Eastwick Friends & Neighbors Coalition, says he started going there in the early 1970s, around the time Tinicum Marsh was established as a refuge.

"We used to just drive down there and fish," he says.

When the tidal marsh was threatened in the early 1970s, Diehl joined a concerned residents group called CARP to fight it.

Lamar Gore, manager of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, says what was once their "outdoor playground" was being "poisoned by landfills and a lot of noise."

The grassroots effort of CARP spurred Congress to establish what was America's first urban refuge in 1972.

"We were successful in our efforts because we began to teach people," explains Diehl. "What's in it for them if they protect and enhance nature."

It was, says Gore, a monumental effort.

"The refuge is just about 1,000 acres," says Gore. "We do everything from nature walks, flower walks."

The refuge also offers bird walks and bat walks, along with kayaking and fishing.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service runs the refuge with a focus on education and community engagement.

"We have successful conservation when the community is walking with you on that conservation journey," says Gore.

About a decade ago, when the marsh was again threatened by development, Leonard Stewart stepped up to protest.

"Our main concern was the quality-of-life issues," says Stewart. "You have to get involved."

The efforts of both Diehl and Stewart have made a difference in the refuge's preservation for future generations.

A plaque on one of the refuge boardwalks marks Diehl's contribution - her conservation efforts with CARP.

"They said nobody could do it. Somehow, we did it," says Diehl.