The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched its Urban Wildlife Conservation Program in 2012 in order to increase the relevancy of the service to urban communities, as well as to connect urban communities with nature and environmental conservation. As part of this initiative, the USFWS has designated certain urban centers as Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership Areas. The main goal of the Urban Wildlife Refuges is to engage urban communities in wildlife conservation, often with the help of community partners. These are eight "Standards of Excellence" that serve as a framework to support this goal. While these Standards of Excellence are in place, there is still work to be done in taking these rather broad standards and operationalizing them, so there is guidance and an understanding of best practices related to the standards at the individual refuge level. For our project, we were tasked by our client at the USFWS with operationalizing the standards related to the broad goal of creating community connection and engagement. In order to assess these best practices, USFWS asked us to examine the practices of other federal land-management agencies and conservation-oriented non-profits that have urban programs, in addition to well-established and effective Urban Refuge Partnerships within the agency.
We conducted a literature review of research on urban and minority population views of nature and wildlife, as well as their use of natural areas, and barriers to this use. We also interviewed staff from land-management agencies and conservation organizations about their urban programs. From our research we found that there are socio-economic and socio-demographic factors that influence urban and minority participation in conservation activities, and there are also consistent barriers that have prevented them from participating in conservation activities. From our interviews we found that it is essential for refuges to build strong relationships with urban community members in order to gain their trust and to solicit their participation in programs and activities. In doing so, refuge staff must initiate contact by coming off the refuge and into the community, and reach out to community organizations and leaders as potential partners and allies. Refuges must also address and work to overcome barriers urban and minority communities have historically encountered in participating in conservation activities, and pursue activities that increase their relevancy in the urban environment. Soliciting community input in designing refuge programs and activities, and then acting on this input, is also critical to increasing relevancy. Doing these things may require a paradigm shift for refuge staff who traditionally have focused on conservation activities only on the refuges, and waited for the public to come to them, rather than reaching out to communities. However, this shift is necessary in order for the USFWS to create a broader conservation constituency and to truly engage the 80% of the U.S. population that lives in urban areas.