A very auspicious day in the history of wildlife protection occurred 111 years ago. It was on March 14, 1903 that President Theodore Roosevelt established the first federal bird reservation, Pelican Island, a five-acre mangrove island in the Indian River Lagoon on the east coast of Florida near Vero Beach.

Pelican Island was a haven for nesting brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, and a variety of herons and egrets. It was also a haven for people who liked to shoot these birds. The slaughter of these birds was not yet illegal, and Frank Chapman, curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was concerned about their survival. When the idea of federal protection was presented to the sportsman and avid conservationist President Roosevelt, he is said to have uttered “I so declare it.” With that and the signing of an executive order, the first federal bird reservation was created. He went on to create 54 other bird reservations and/or national game preserves, all for the benefit of wildlife.

Mr. Roosevelt had started a novel approach for protecting wildlife. Such visionary environmental thinking is reflected in a speech he gave in 1908; the ideas he discussed are just as relevant today.

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and wisely using the property, which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.”

In 1940 all the federal wildlife programs were combined into the Fish and Wildlife Service and the bird reservations became National Wildlife Refuges. Now, there are more than 551 refuges, 70 national fish hatcheries, 65 fishery resource offices, 86 ecological services field stations and thousands of smaller special management areas. All told there are 150 million acres in these programs. The service also recognizes that most fish and wildlife habitats are on private property, so they partner with a variety of organizations to promote and assist private conservation and restoration efforts. The service employs about 9,000 people at locations all across the country.

There are 11 National Wildlife Refuges in Massachusetts. The closest one is the 628-acre Nomans Land Island, which is three miles south of Squibnocket Point and is part of Chilmark. This refuge, however, is closed to the public for two reasons: unexploded ordinance is still on the island, testimony to its previous use for military target practice, and it has value as a natural habitat that is not currently subjected to human disturbance.

Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge is a relatively new refuge in Falmouth and Mashpee on Cape Cod, established in 1995. Of the 5,871 acres in this refuge, only 335 of them will be owned by the Fish and Wildlife Service, so much of their efforts are to coordinate land management with the state and private conservation groups that own adjacent or nearby parcels of land. This refuge contains some of the best remaining dense shrubby habitat required by the rare New England cottontail, our only native cottontail (the widespread eastern cottontail is not native and occupies more open habitats).

Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge (7,604 acres) and Nantucket National Wildlife Refuge (21 acres) are the other refuges in the Cape and Islands area.

A 2013 study, Banking on Nature, documents the value of this extensive system of National Wildlife Refuges. In 2011, the refuge system was visited by 46.5 million people and generated $2.4 billion of sales within the nearby local economies. Non-consumptive activities like bird-watching and hiking generated about 72 per cent of this spending, while fishing generated about 21 per cent and hunting generated 7 per cent. Looking at this spending data another way shows that 77 per cent of this spending was by people who were not from the local area. These data document the important economics of ecotourism.

The same 2013 study documents the economic activity generated by one of the 11 refuges in eastern Massachusetts — the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,230-acre refuge located about 20 miles west of Boston. While nonresidents comprised only 15 per cent of the refuge’s visitors, they accounted for about 53 per cent of the $1.2 million spent in the local economy. And these numbers do not include the economic value of the jobs created by this local spending.

I bet that President Roosevelt did not anticipate that his simple “I so declare it,” which was intended to protect wildlife, would also generate so much economic activity! Ecotourism, a term coined in 1965 and popularized in 1983, generates a lot of economic activity around the National Wildlife Refuges and other open spaces that are owned by local nonprofits and/or state agencies. A large number of people appreciate and utilize these open spaces. And a lot of people go to these localities — spending money along the way — because these open spaces are there and open to the public.

Robert Culbert leads guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.