Dennis Hartnett welcomes human visitors to the Patuxent Research Refuge. But Hartnett, the education director of this 12,841-acre preserve between Baltimore and Washington, wants to make it clear that wildlife comes first.
There are no trash cans at the refuge. No picnic tables. No dispenser of corn or pellets to feed the ducks. No petting zoo. No viewfinders where a quarter gives you a panorama of a faraway pond or river scene.
Instead, there are narrow, marked trails that travel through dense habitats where the wildlife is the star of the show. In the winter, white-tailed deer scamper past a plot of American chestnut saplings that refuge managers are trying to grow after a devastating blight nearly wiped out the species decades ago. In the spring, the vernal pools on the property are alive with the sounds of bullfrogs and peepers. Summer brings soaring great blue herons and egrets. And in the fall, the crunch of leaves gives way to the beginning of what is often a spectacular waterfowl season, with geese and tundra swans occupying several of the refuge's ponds.
"Parks are for people. Refuges are for wildlife," Hartnett said. That's one reason the refuge asks all visitors to stay on the trails and pack out their trash.
He added, "The best consistent time to visit Patuxent is early in the morning. The more people who are here, the less wildlife you're going to see."
Established in 1939 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Patuxent Research Refuge was not supposed to be a tourist destination. Its primary purpose, according to then-Agricultural Secretary Henry Wallace, was to "assist in the restoration of wildlife — one of our greatest natural resources."
The scientists at Patuxent were instrumental in looking at land-management practices, particularly the ability to restore agricultural lands to wildlife habitat. During the 1960s, researchers began to study the effects of pesticides on birds and the environment. The researchers were particularly struck by the decline in bald eagles and the proliferation of DDT, a widely used insecticide. They helped to discover that DDT led to eggshells so thin that eaglets could not hatch. Rachel Carson relied heavily on their research for her seminal book, "Silent Spring." The Patuxent researchers' work, and the book, led the United States to ban DDT in 1972.
Today, research continues at what is now the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. The research area is on the refuge's Central Tract, which is closed to the public. The sensitive research spans many areas, including habitat restoration, migration patterns, contaminants and toxics and disease immunity. In the 1990s, the center linked contaminated sediment to waterfowl mortality. Scientists there are looking at links between mercury and bird health.
Nowadays, the center is probably most famous for its whooping crane work. The cranes, whose population dipped to a low of 16 individual birds in 1942, are recovering and numbered 407 in the wild in 2010. They were classified as endangered in 1967 — just one year after the Endangered Species Act passed.
The center has 68 adult whooping cranes and is working to create a non-migratory population that is genetically diverse enough to survive in the wild. Once a year, usually in October during the Patuxent Wildlife Festival, the refuge offers tours of the cranes' home.
Some of the fruits of center's wildlife research are evident out on the trails. For example, habitat restoration specialists have built islands shaped like stars instead of circles in the lakes. The star, or crisscross shape, lets the ducks and geese nest all the way around, said Amy Shoop, a naturalist at the refuge.
Shoop said she's excited about the trail guide that the Friends of the Patuxent, a 300-member strong volunteer contingent, has put together for visitors to this site in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways & Watertrails Network. Available at the beginning of Goose Pond trail, the guide corresponds with number markers that point out edge habitats, plants such as the greenbrier and the importance of leaving dead trees where they fall.
The most visited area of the Paxutent refuge is the National Wildlife Visitors Center, a 2,000-acre parcel that is easily accessible off Powder Mill Road in the Laurel/Bowie area that is known as the South Tract. School buses pull in daily around Scarlet Tanager loop. Scientific conferences fill the rooms.
The South Tract center includes an exhibit on the refuge's history and its researchers' contributions as well as interactive exhibits on habitat and wildlife. Children can hear the sounds of bugs, birds and amphibians; venture through a hall that show the threats to oceans, wetlands and Chesapeake Bay; map the migration patterns of various species; or tour On The Brink, an exhibit of taxidermy animals and insects that are in danger of extinction because of incursions into their habitat and changes in their food supply.
Hartnett said he always encourages school trip leaders to take their charges outside. Walking is the best way to get up close and personal with the refuge's animals, but there is also the option of an open-air tram for $3 a person in the warm months. The tram is the only perk that charges a fee at the refuge.
Visitors wishing to fish, bike or hike in more solitude can find their way to the refuge's North Tract. This 8,100-acre tract became part of the refuge in the early 1990s, when the military base next door, Fort Meade, was ordered to downsize.
Given its proximity to Washington, Baltimore and the fast-growing suburbs, the land might have become the next Columbia. But two important factors stopped that from happening. One, hunters and environmentalists lobbied hard to protect it. And two, the property was rife with unexploded ordnance that date back to when the Army used the land for a weapons-training area.
Patuxent has made efforts to find and remove some of the ordnance over the years, and none have harmed a visitor. Rarely have any been spotted. Still, visitors to the North Tract must sign a waiver before entering the premises. One copy remains with the visitor, and the other stays in the vehicle.
The waiver is one reason the North Tract's hours are more restricted. Photographers often come to the South Tract at sunrise and sunset in the summer, but the North Tract's gate is closed then.
The North Tract is a bit harder to find; only a small sign marks it off Route 198 through the Laurel area. Instead of a vast center with exhibits, visitors will find a trailer-like building with one volunteer and a basket of pelts and shells to touch. It takes 20 minutes of highway driving to get from one tract to the other.
But there are no plans to connect the North Tract to the rest of the refuge – such a move would destroy too much habitat, and would run through the sensitive work the scientists are conducting on the central section.
Controlled hunting continues much of the year throughout the refuge, and staff occasionally organize controlled burns of species such as phragmites.
Even if the wildlife refuge is mostly about the four-legged critters, Shoop and Hartnett hope more people find their way to the forest hidden in plain sight — an area that could easily have been lost to the strip malls and housing developments that surround it.
"Being outdoors is fun," Shoop said. "But sharing it with other people, well, that's even better."
Article originally publised in the Bay Journal on March 1, 2013.
The Patuxent Research Refuge is the nation's only National Wildlife Refuge established to support wildlife research. Tour portions of 12,000 acres along the upper Patuxent River, and a visitor center on regional and national wildlife.