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Published May 20, 2020

Essential: Rhode Islanders Turn to Audubon During Pandemic Restrictions and Statewide Lock Down

Written by Todd McLeish

If you have driven past almost any Audubon wildlife refuge in the past few months, you would have seen the parking lots occupied at nearly every hour of daylight and every day of the week. Many are full on weekend afternoons. The refuges have been experiencing record-breaking levels of visitation, and it’s not surprising why.

The COVID19 pandemic has resulted in the closure of all schools and many businesses, necessitated that everyone maintains social distancing, and restrictions have kept people at home for most days. One of the few opportunities people have had to get outside to enjoy the fresh air and get some exercise is to visit a nature preserve, and even some of them have been closed.

But all of Audubon’s public wildlife refuges are open, and they will remain so as long as people can stay at least six feet from each other and as long as Governor Raimondo and the Department of Health say it is prudent to do so.

“I’m not at all surprised that visitation is way up,” said Larry Taft, Audubon’s executive director. “We all need some way to unwind. Being able to hike on our trails is the perfect outlet.

“Besides, the weather is getting nicer and the woods are coming alive with birds singing, frogs calling and trees blooming,” he continued. “Taking a nature walk is a great way to reinvigorate ourselves. It’s one of the few ways to have a positive experience these days.”

The dangerous global health crisis is making many people recognize for the first time that nature is essential, not only to the well-being of local wildlife but also to the well-being of people. Time and time again, research studies around the world have demonstrated the value of spending time outdoors. Scientists say it improves our mood and self-esteem and even reduces blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. Generally, a walk in nature makes people healthier and happier. You can see it in the faces of those walking around Audubon refuges.

A comment from one refuge visitor proves the point. “Thank you so much,” she wrote. “My daughter and I usually go to your refuge at times when others are not there, like drizzly and cold days. She is on the autism spectrum, and I can’t tell you how much she needs the quiet and calm of the woods.”

Scott Ruhren, Audubon’s senior director of conservation, said that refuge staff have seen considerable increases in visitors at the Caratunk Wildlife Refuge in Seekonk, seeking that quiet and calm, especially over the weekends. And even remote refuges like Fisherville Brook in Exeter have seen a large jump in visitation during the crisis.

Taft and Ruhren agree that it’s a positive sign to see so many people enjoying the wildlife refuges – including many who have never visited an Audubon refuge before – and they hope it will lead to new members, new supporters, and continued visitation long after the crisis is over.

But it hasn’t been without its challenges.

“Some people don’t understand that our wildlife refuges are not like local parks,” said Ruhren. “We have never been a place for lawn chairs and large gatherings. While we welcome and encourage visitors, we’re here for the wildlife.”

More visitation has also led to modest increases in trash and occasionally visitors wandering off the trails. There has also been a significant increase of people bringing dogs to the wildlife refuges. Although Audubon understands how much people enjoy being outside with their pets, dogs disturb the wildlife that Audubon strives to protect. It is especially a problem when dog owners let their dogs off the leash and let them run.

Posted signs and kiosks at each property provide important information and suggestions for individuals who wish to use the trails. During this health crisis Audubon is also displaying visitor-friendly posters that remind guests about precautions like social distancing and staying in small groups.

Audubon staff and volunteers continue to monitor property attendance, hoping that the refuges can remain open. The most popular locations may be forced to limit the number of guests that can visit at any one time, depending on visitor behavior and recommendations from state officials.

In addition to the increase in visitors to the refuges due to the pandemic, Audubon has also responded to the crisis by creating a new environmental education portal called Audubon at Home: Nature Play and Learning. (See full story in this issue.) With schools closed, teachers are delivering lessons online and parents are seeking activities for their children. Audubon’s educators are creating a weekly series of themed lessons and activities – including videos, crafts, stories and other materials – that can be accessed via Facebook or Audubon’s website (www.asri.org).

“We had to cancel our usual in-person education programs and field trips, and we couldn’t have people coming to the Nature Center, so our education staff decided to think outside the box,” Taft said. “They said, ‘Let’s just get started and offer families and teachers what we know best, and let’s do it on video.’ And they did. Part of it was simply to maintain a presence and to build goodwill, but mostly it was about providing lessons in a safe way at a time when they are needed most.”

Audubon received a grant earlier in the year to conduct field trips and school visits this spring, and the grantor agreed to allow Audubon to use the funds to develop distance learning modules instead.

“It has taken quite a bit of effort, and our education and communications staff have done yeomen’s work on it,” Taft concluded. “In the end, it provides another dimension of what we can offer. These are innovations we’ve put together in a few short weeks that we might not have gotten around to doing for many months or years otherwise.

“Ultimately,” he added, “we want kids to get outside in nature and fall in love with it. Having these structured programs and content online, and still having the refuges available to visit, will enable them to immerse themselves in nature and learn about nature. And from there, we hope they’ll want to protect it.”

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