A juvenile great-horned owl sitting on a tree branch at the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge (Tom Kachelmeyer)

After two decades, the continent’s only international wildlife refuge has a bus stop to make it more accessible.

Just 20 miles south of Michigan’s largest city, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, offers more than 6,000 acres of protected wildlife habitat with 300 different species of birds, unique islands, and rare fish. 

But the refuge lacked a bus stop, which limited access for some visitors, until a stop was added on the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) bus route in 2021. 

The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge added a bus stop on the SMART route in 2021 to increase equitable access. (Facebook photo from Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge)

Last week, U. S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who oversees the management of 480 million acres of public lands, cited the bus stop at the refuge when asked how the department is working to increase access to public lands for marginalized populations. 

“I’ve had the opportunity to visit many urban national wildlife refuges around the country,” Haaland, the country’s first Native American cabinet secretary, said at the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference.

“The Detroit River [Inter]national Wildlife Refuge is on a bus stop. You can take a … bus and get off at the wildlife refuge and go in,” said Haaland emphatically, adding she previously met with community leaders at the refuge to discuss increasing access for underrepresented groups.

Although the route does not go directly from Detroit to the refuge, it makes the site more accessible for metro Detroiters and for people of color who are three times more likely to live in “nature deprived” areas that do not have nearby parks or greenspaces, according to a Center for American Progress study

Nature has a positive effect on mental and physical health and provides environmental benefits like flood control and cleaner air. Numerous studies have found that a few minutes in nature can lower heart rates and reduce stress, ward off depression, and promote cognitive development in children. 

The bus stop is used by approximately 50 passengers a month, according to Bernard Parker III, vice president of external affairs for SMART. 

“This was one way of recognizing that not everybody, even in the Motor City, has a car to get to the refuge,” said Roberta Urbani, board member of the refuge’s friends group, the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance. 

A map from the 2015 National Alternative Transportation Evaluation report of data and trends for alternative transportation in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The map shows transportation access for Detroiters relative to different units of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. 

Increasing equitable access to public lands is one of four priorities in the Department of the Interior’s equity plan, along with improving the collection of equity-related data, increasing access to tribal grant funding, and addressing structural barriers that prevent underserved communities from contracting with the department as suppliers. 

“Given the rural nature of wildlife areas, with relatively few homes and businesses immediately adjacent, they can be challenging places for transit to serve,” said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit advocating for improved public transportation in Metro Detroit. “It is great that a transit connection exists, and it does provide important accessibility for Detroiters.”  

The wildlife refuge spans 48 miles of the Detroit River and Lake Erie shoreline. It was established in 2001 by Congress to protect and restore the wildlife of the river and to create partnerships between the local, state, federal and Canadian governments to promote public awareness of the Detroit River resources. 

The refuge features a 700-foot fishing pier, a launch for kayaks, canoes and paddle boards, hiking trails, birdwatching, hunting, and environmental education. 

In 2022, Haaland toured the refuge and participated in a roundtable discussion with community leaders to highlight her department’s commitment to equitable public access to outdoor space, according to a press release

“How exciting that the Secretary remembers us and uses our successes as an example,” Nicole LaFleur, executive director of the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, said in an email. 

Urbani added that the bus stop was a big accomplishment, coming after a year-long internship project for the refuge that built on years of interest.

“It’s part of a bigger picture,” Urbani said, as the refuge is a part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s national urban refuge network which engages urban populations in conservation. 

The refuge has a free environmental education program that offers school bus funding for field trips to the refuge, park ranger visits to school classrooms and teacher workshops. 

To access the refuge by bus, SMART fares start at $2 for a 4-hour period or $5 for a 24-hour pass. Passengers can board at the Dearborn Transit Center, Wayne County Community College Downriver Campus, Southland Mall, as well as at Meijer stores on Dix Hwy and Goddard or Fort Street and Cambridge. 

To see a full bus route schedule, search for “160 Downriver” at this link

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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1 Comment

  1. Cool, as a car-free Detroiter I’m glad that this is being talked about. Though I’m bummed that it would take roughly three hours to get there from my home…I’d absolutely love to visit the refuge and would go if I could reasonably do so.

    It isn’t a reasonable trip if it takes nearly the whole day just for transport. You can drive the whole way to Grand Rapids in less time.

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