Erika Gilsdorf, as she set off on the road, tiny house in tow!

When I set off in 2021 on a year-long road trip around the U.S. in my Outlander PHEV, living in my tiny house which I pulled, I already had a passion for protection of wildlife habitat and for environmental education for our youth. I was raised to value, respect, and enjoy the outdoors. During my trip, I visited 58 amazing and unique National Wildlife Refuges, including the renowned Bosque del Apache. Though I had been involved with Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in my home state of Minnesota, I didn’t realize I still had so much to learn about the refuge system as a whole.

Erika visiting Bosque del Apache in March 2021

My passion to give a voice to wildlife refuges was ignited with the past administration’s threat to the protection of so many of our natural places. I set out to see and show why our natural places, like National Wildlife Refuges, are indeed valuable for wildlife and for us as well. And, that they needed our help.

I met so many unsung heroes in the National Wildlife Refuge System! There are volunteers of all ages welcoming people to wildlife refuges, working with school kids, mowing, cleaning bathrooms, picking up garbage, running gift shops, and leading community programs. It quickly became clear to me that our wildlife refuges rely heavily on dedicated and passionate volunteers to share their time, skills, and commitment to protect these beautiful places so that we can visit and share with others.

I also met amazing, brilliant, and dedicated staff who are creating great change and still achieving progress, despite dealing with budget cuts and extremely limited staff. While their passion and perseverance is inspiring, it is at the same time admittedly disappointing that they don’t have more financial support at the government level for the necessary management of these critical places.

I witnessed incredible partnerships. I didn’t know wildlife refuges brought together so many partners within a community and I learned about partnerships that allowed land to be purchased for protection, urban areas to be restored and revitalized for wildlife and communities, and youth engagement programs to get more kids and families into the outdoors.

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What can we do to protect our National Wildlife Refuges? How can you help?

We can volunteer. There’s something for everyone with differing abilities, interests, and time. Many volunteers told me they loved the camaraderie of being with like-minded people who value the outdoors, want to share their passion with others, and love knowing they are contributing to the well-being of their own special refuge within their community.

We can donate. Programs need funding. Many of the programs around environmental education for youth and communities rely on donations.

We can be responsible stewards, cleaning up after ourselves at each visit. This was one of the biggest challenges I saw while visiting wildlife refuges. Many people do not understand that our refuges are not National Parks, which often have more funding, staff, and services available, and garbage collection often falls on volunteers. Following “Leave No Trace” principles is important when visiting refuges to lessen the impact of your visit on the resource. Commit to always pack out what you pack in – it’s that simple! (And that includes packing out what your dog, if allowed, leaves as well.)

We can follow the rules. I know that following rules is not always what people want to do and sometimes rules are not easily enforced, but staying on trails, refraining from harassment of vulnerable nesting or migrating species, not going into undesignated areas, following pet or no pet policies, parking in designated spots, and not littering are critical to protecting wildlife habitat!

Set an example. If other, less informed or conscientious people are visiting, let them see you packing out your garbage, picking up a stray plastic bottle, or reminding your child or friend to not forget their wrapper after a snack break.

And, of course, what most of you already know: Go slow and take the time to really see what is right in front of you. I returned from my year-long road trip in the best mental space I think I’ve ever been in, refreshed and renewed. I’d been able to spend about 80% of my time outdoors, often times it was spent sitting with my back to a tree looking at a swamp or river, enjoying a desert breeze on a rocky trail, watching a heron feed or crouching down to watch how crabs interact with each other on a muddy bank. Where else in the world can you get more out of going slow than at a National Wildlife Refuge?

Erika “going slow”

While on my journey, I was often asked what my favorite wildlife refuge was. I can honestly say I don’t have a favorite. Each refuge was so different and special, doing their own unique part in the work to protect migrating and nesting birds, pollinators, panthers, sea turtles, manatees, wetlands, forests, and native grasses. The list could go on and on. And the fact that they are all part of a larger system, working together with one another is really incredible and invaluable.

I’m thankful to those who came before me, for standing up for natural places and wildlife habitat. I’m thankful for those working today to continue to grow that work. And, I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to learn about the heart and passion behind what makes National Wildlife Refuges truly the most valuable and special places in the nation. How lucky are we to have them in our own backyard?!

By Erika Gilsdorf