Natl. Refuge System kicks off 100th anniversary with party

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 10, 2003

It was a wild party, drawing the likes President Theodore Roosevelt, a former slave and federal and local city officials.

U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, along with elected leaders from Suffolk, Chesapeake and several northeastern North Carolina counties, were among the small crowd at the Great Dismal Swamp and Wildlife Refuge’s celebratory bash on Monday. The event, paying tribute to the National Wildlife Refuge System’s 100th anniversary, is kicking off a year of activities designed to draw more visitors to the swamp.

Representatives from the federal refuge system’s Massachusetts-based regional office, on a whirlwind tour visiting 25 refuges in 13 days, were also on hand for the festivities.

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Roosevelt created the refuge system on March 14, 1903 when he declared that Florida’s Pelican Island be protected as a bird sanctuary.

That was the beginning of the arrangement that today covers more than 93 million acres and includes refuges in every state.

Roosevelt’s character – also known as James Foote, a professional re-enactor – welcomed one small group as they docked at Lake Drummond.

&uot;Wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people who are alive today, but the property of unknown generations,&uot; Foote said, quoting the late president.

Roosevelt would be proud of the refuge system that stretches across the United States today, Foote said.

The Great Dismal Swamp’s rich, and sometimes checkered, history was spotlighted during Monday’s program, including George Washington’s interest and investing in the swamp in the 1700s and the role it played as a haven for fleeing slaves and a hideout for fugitives.

Sylvia Tabb Lee, a Williamsburg-based interpreter, came in singing rich spirituals, telling the crowd that she was running away from her master. With much audience interaction, she recounted the challenges of life in the swamp.

Anthony Leger, regional chief of National Wildlife Refuge System, said the Great Dismal’s future is bright.

&uot;There are a lot of competing demands around the country,&uot; Leger said. &uot;The Great Dismal Swamp is on our list to be provided with better facilities.&uot;

Two cities – Suffolk and Chesapeake – and Gates County, N.C., are all vying for the chance to become home to the refuge’s proposed new headquarters and interpretative center. All three localities have submitted plans that are being considered by local and regional park officials.

A local recommendation will be included in a comprehensive study plan that is now under way, Leger said. A first draft of that plan will be made public next fall.