Heinz Wildlife Refuge reopens gates to its beautiful social-distance hotspot

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. -- "I think I was born here under one of those spatterdock bushes over there," said Veronica Fletcher.

She is a volunteer at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum and she can't seem to get enough of it.

"You can't beat this. At all," she said in between waving, "hello," to every person she sees.

She would be the first to list the physical and mental health benefits found within the 1,000-acres at the southwest tip of Philadelphia. It's a hot spot for exercising, bicycling, fishing, yoga, and photography among others.

"I don't think that I have ever been to a wildlife refuge that had so much in so little time," said Joe Napier, who was birding along with his friends.

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic took root, it became more difficult to enjoy it.

Heinz closed its gates in reaction to statewide orders earlier this year. As the weeks went by, visitors were subjected to walking a quarter mile past the barren parking lot in order to gain entry from Lindbergh Boulevard.

The gates prevented guests from cluttering in the parking lot and facilitated social distancing. It also put the brakes on visitors disrupting the natural habitat by parking off-road.

Now that the gates are open, guests will be put to the test.

It was a celebration of the refuge's accomplishments when the Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Aurelia Skipwith, cut the ribbon on the parking lot.

"During this time, there's no better place to social distance than at your local national wildlife refuge," Director Skipwith said. "And Philly is a prime example of being in the communities."

America's first urban refuge, Heinz works to invite communities that have historically been excluded from such natural spaces.

"We're actually trying to understand the desires of the community, the needs of the community, and build our programming around those needs and desires," said Lamar Gore, the refuge manager at Heinz.

Gore takes pride in the educational and volunteer opportunities at Heinz, along with its recreational activities such as archery, kayaking, and now virtual workshops.

"Our work here, it's planting seeds. It's planting seeds for our community. The community that we haven't directly reached out to," he said.

Volunteer Veronica Fletcher would agree. "Everyone is invited from every community, she said. "It's free. And I suggest come on down, everybody!"

To learn more, visit their website.

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