Environmental problems facing Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge tend to grab the headlines. What is getting lost is that the unique natural area is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
It was back in 1963 that the first lands were purchased under the federal Migratory Bird Conservation Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create the refuge along the Delaware Bay. The size of the refuge has grown from the initial 8,000 acres to include more than 10,100 acres, one of the largest refuges on the East Coast.
Al Rizzo, the new project leader for Prime Hook and Bombay Hook refuges, said at the beginning, the primary goal of the refuge was to protect a habitat for the greater snow goose – and it worked too well. It's well documented how prolific snow geese have become.
The refuge has an active Friends group that not only donates thousands of hours of volunteer labor each year, but also helps to sponsor events that highlight the natural beauty and opportunities at the refuge. Over the years, the refuge has become a favorite spot for nature photographers, canoeists kayakers and bird watchers. The waterways and uplands in the refuge also provide great hunting and fishing spots.
Rizzo said it's time to bring the focus back to what the refuge has to offer. “It really is a jewel for the state,” he said. “It's taken its bumps and lumps, but it's on the mend.”
Art Coppola, refuge manager, said comments in the refuge's guest book tell the real story. “So many people say how much they love this refuge,” he said.
Prime Hook refuge actually began as a satellite of its sister refuge to the north, Bombay Hook. It wasn't until 2000 that Prime Hook became an independent refuge.
In the beginning, a small staff began management of the refuge for wildlife; in 1986, the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel was reintroduced to the refuge. The refuge headquarters was built in 1997 with the assistance of volunteers, which also marked the creation of the Friends of Prime Hook.
About 80 percent of the refuge is a mix of freshwater and saltwater wetlands, although the amount of freshwater marsh has diminished dramatically over the past five years due to saltwater intrusion from the Delaware Bay. Storms, including the effects of Hurricane Sandy, wiped out about 4,000 acres of marsh, Rizzo said. But, sections are already starting to recover.
Stretching from Slaughter Beach in the north to the Broadkill River in the south, the refuge borders three Delaware Bay communities: Slaughter Beach, Primehook Beach and Broadkill Beach.
The name Prime Hook dates back to the Dutch, the first European settlers in the area, who called the area Priume Hoek for its abundance of beach plums.
The refuge is open everyday one-half hour before sunrise and one-half hour after sunset in designated areas. The refuge visitor center is open 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, throughout the year; and on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April through November and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. December through March. The refuge office address is 11978 Turkle Pond Road, Milton, DE 19968.
Special events have been scheduled throughout the year to commemorate the 50th anniversary. Rizzo said most of the programs are geared toward children, the future stewards of the refuge. A list of special events is on page 73.
Next week: Refuge officials plan for the future.