Americans won’t have to look far to celebrate their proud conservation heritage this month.  Many national wildlife refuges around the country will host open houses and public celebrations in honor of the 109th birthday of the National Wildlife Refuge System on March 14; hundreds will offer great opportunities for wildlife viewing.

On this date in 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt established the first national wildlife refuge on Florida’s Pelican Island to protect wild birds from bounty hunters. Today, the Refuge System’s 556 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts make up the nation’s premier network of public lands, providing vital habitat for thousands of animal and plant species.

Americans reap added benefits in improved human health and recreation, such as fishing, hiking, photography and wildlife watching. Refuges also support local communities, attracting tourist dollars, generating jobs and supplementing the educational programs of many school systems.

Last year, 45 million people visited a national wildlife refuge. According to an October 2011 report commissioned by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit conservation organization, refuges and other natural lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service generated about $4.2 billion in economic activity and supported more than 32,000 jobs.

“National wildlife refuges are national treasures that play a critical role in preserving America’s rich wildlife legacy,” says U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “Without refuges’ important conservation work, the country would lose many species of plants and animals that help clean our air, filter our water, pollinate our crops and boost our understanding of our place in the natural world.”

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