Fifty years ago, the Detroit River was one of the most polluted waterways in North America. Oil pollution routinely caused massive duck kills, and many of Detroit’s native species were nowhere to be found. In the throes of industry and development, the Motor City was a pretty inhospitable place for wildlife.

Today, the Detroit River is a very different place. Water quality has dramatically improved, and ospreys have returned to the river for the first time since the late 1800s. Lake sturgeon are spawning for the first time in 30 years, and bald eagles, peregrine falcons, lake whitefish, and walleye have all come back to the area. How did this area change so drastically? And how was it done in a huge industrial city like Detroit?

It didn’t happen overnight, that’s for sure. There’s been 40 years and counting of pollution regulation from industry and government alike, which slowly improved water quality to where it is today. And in 2006, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, was established over 6,000 acres of land and 12,000 acres of waterways in Michigan and Ontario. The Detroit River is the only international wildlife refuge in North America, and setting aside this land for nature has allowed over 300 species of birds, 30 species of waterfowl, and 113 species of fish to flourish.

Detroit is an old city – it was first established in 1701 by the French – and it has a very strong reputation as the center of the “rust belt”, the headquarters of America’s automobile industry, and a major port with great access to nearby mining centers. But Detroit is also a major thoroughfare for wildlife – the intersection of two migratory pathways – and that’s why this wildlife refuge is so important. John Hartig, manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and author of the book Bringing Conservation to Cities, noted that “It is a paradox – you have heavy industry and lots of people, and a wildlife refuge. But that’s what makes it so special, because right in your backyard, close to home, you can experience something very special.”

That brings us to another reason that the wildlife refuge is important for Detroit. Part of the refuge’s mission is to bring nature closer to home for the benefit of the city’s community. “Most people who get exposed to a compelling outdoor experience love it.” Mr. Hartig remarked. “And then once they get this experience, they can learn how to love it, care for it, become a steward, and become a conservationist.”

It isn’t easy to manage a conservation area in the middle of a big city. There’s less space and more people in a city, as well as more stakeholders and decisions to be made. “The key is to be the table when those decisions get made,” Mr. Hartig said. “You have to be in it for the long haul, and you need to become part of the community fabric.” Urban conservation involves a lot of optimization and negotiation, and only when scientists and conservationists are at the table with businesses and governments can the health of wildlife be considered alongside the health of people.

For John Hartig, it’s all worth it to see the “sparkle in kids’ eyes” and the “sense of wonder about natural resources” when he shows them around the wildlife reserve. “80% of the people in the U.S. and Canada live in urban areas. Where is the next generation of conservationists going to come from? It’s going to have to come from urban areas.”

Emma Hutchinson is a communications specialist for WILD Cities and a Stanford University student currently contributing from Madrid, Spain.

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