Building a Sustainable Future at National Wildlife Refuges

sign next to pond that reads “Painted Turtle Pond Ecological Study Area” with image of turtle
Painted turtle study area at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Woodbridge, Virginia. Photo by Bill O’Brian/USFWS

National wildlife refuges are places where wildlife and people thrive. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service focuses on this mission, we also strive to manage refuge lands sustainably.

Recently, we demonstrated innovative sustainable technology with compact electric heavy equipment machines at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Woodbridge, Virginia — just 20 miles south of Washington, DC. The pilot project highlights zero-emissions trail-building and maintenance through a partnership with Volvo Construction Equipment and Beam Global. These are the first pieces of electric heavy equipment to be used on a project by a federal agency.

Through this pilot opportunity and equipment loan, the Service had access to new clean technology that aligns with sustainability goals while improving public access at an urban national wildlife refuge near the nation’s capital. The project is being done by our Maintenance Action Team (MAT) that pulls skilled trade employees from national wildlife refuges across the country for a short period.

At left: new viewing platform overlooking a pond at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. | At right: entrance sign to refuge. Photos by Bill O’Brian/USFWS

Occoquan Bay Refuge is one of 567 national wildlife refuges that make up the National Wildlife Refuge System — founded in 1903, the nation’s largest network of public lands and waters dedicated to the conservation of fish and wildlife. The refuge is home to grasslands, wetlands, and woods that attract red foxes, painted turtles, wood ducks, osprey, bald eagles, river otters, wild turkeys, and countless other species.

Our work often depends on the relationships and partnerships we develop. We routinely collaborate with conservation organizations and nontraditional partners in creative ways to help us have a positive impact on landscapes.

flat trail through tall tan grass and trees
New ADA-accessible trail at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Bill O’Brian/USFWS

During the pilot project at the refuge, two of our operators who are military veterans tested fully electric heavy equipment to help build a half-mile trail that met Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility guidelines, complete with a new viewing platform.

Our military personnel provide us with proven skills and talents that help us accomplish our mission. Forty percent of our maintenance professionals are veterans, which is double the rate of military veterans in our overall workforce.

At left: Veteran James (Jim) Fortier, MAT member and small craft operator at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Jim served in the Navy and U.S. Coast Guard from May 1987 through June 2008. | At right: Victor Elam, MAT member and refuge manager at Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Photos by Bill O’Brian/USFWS

A solar-powered electric vehicle charging system provided power for the compact electric machines: a front-end loader and a mini excavator. Operators used the electric compact front-end loader to haul and lay down gravel and clear brush for the trail.

person with small front-end loader next to object with big roof
Electric equipment and solar-powered electric vehicle charging system. Photo by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

The team used the mini excavator to dig trenches, improve drainage, and help build the viewing platform, which overlooks a pond.

man in FWS uniform kneeling on wooden platform holding electric screwdriver or drill
MAT member builds boardwalk for viewing platform overlooking a pond. Photo by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

The electric machines produce zero emissions and significantly less noise than diesel machines, which are used for other refuge work and maintenance.

At left: MAT member using electric loader to spread soil. Photo by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS | Middle: Chuck Henschel, MAT member and maintenance worker at Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex. | At right: Dale Hudson, MAT member and maintenance worker at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Photos by Bill O’Brian/USFWS

This pilot project demonstrated that the use of electric heavy equipment will not only reduce noise and disturbances to wildlife, but it also could jump-start efforts to minimize our carbon footprint on natural areas and reduce emissions while maintaining public lands — moving us toward a more sustainable future.

At left: Veteran Jerauld (Matt) Dominski, MAT member and maintenance worker at Patuxent Research Refuge. Matt served active duty in the Navy June 1992 through February 2000 and Active Reserve 2001 through September 2005. | Middle: MAT member using electric equipment. | At right: Darren Stover, MAT member and heavy equipment coordinator for the North Atlantic-Appalachian Region, using electric excavator. Photos by Bill O’Brian/USFWS

We are committed to tackling the climate crisis. The Occoquan Bay Refuge pilot project is a good first step. It reaffirms our commitment to mobilizing the investments and technologies needed to promote a prosperous net-zero U.S. economy.

person in FWS brown stands on gray platform holding papers
Cynthia Martinez, Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

Welcoming visitors to refuge lands connects people to nature, to the resources we conserve, and to wildlife conservation in general.

Such visitation supports regional economies to the tune of $3.2 billion per year and more than 41,000 jobs.

Conservation stewardship is an essential component of the Biden-Harris administration’s America the Beautiful initiative, a decade-long, locally led, and voluntary campaign to conserve, connect, and restore 30% of our lands and waters by 2030.

National wildlife refuges across the country provide vital habitat for thousands of species and access to world-class recreation — from hiking, fishing, hunting, and boating to nature watching, photography, and environmental education.

You can find at least one refuge in every state and every U.S. territory and within an hour drive of most major cities.

people walk along trail
Service staff exploring the new ADA-accessible trail at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

In a world that is becoming more urbanized, national wildlife refuges are more valuable than ever as places where fish, wildlife, and people can thrive.

The innovative electric heavy equipment demonstration project with Volvo and Beam Global at Occoquan Bay Refuge shows how conservation is a collaborative effort, involving all sectors of society and the economy. Working together, we can build on the nation’s best conservation traditions and values, improving the quality of Americans’ lives — now and for decades to come.

Find a national wildlife refuge near you.

Start a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Written by Vanessa Kauffman, public affairs specialist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters with contributions from Bill O’Brian, writer/editor, Branch of Communications and Digital Services, National Wildlife Refuge System.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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We’re dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats.

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