Visitor Centers on a National Wildlife Refuge

“This used to be a well-kept secret out here,” a visitor to the brand new visitor center at Desert National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), 25 miles northwest of Las Vegas, NV, complained to me. “Now that you’ve built this visitor center, there’ll be lots of people coming out!”

“We can’t be everything to everybody.” says Refuge Manager Amy Sprunger. “I have to look at the mission of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Educating the public about the Fish and Wildlife Service, our refuge — as well as the desert in general – must supersede selfishness.”

Well-hidden Secrets

In general, national wildlife refuges are well-hidden secrets. Although one of the smallest agencies in all of government, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages more acreage than the National Park Service. The new visitor center, in planning for several years, opened in December, 2013. A beautiful facility that blends well with the desert terrain, it has already drawn more visitors than the Mini Mobile that previously served the purpose of a contact station.

Funds provided by the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act (SNPLMA) made possible Desert NWR’s visitor center, maintenance shop, bunkhouse, trail improvements, and other facilities.     

“The new visitor center is an avenue for people to learn about the Refuge and our purpose,” says Amy Sprunger, “because you can’t always see the wildlife.”

Wildlife Abounds

While wildlife abounds on Desert NWR, the Refuge’s focus is to maintain and improve habitat to protect and perpetuate bighorn sheep. As the largest refuge in the continental United States, however, chances of actually viewing one of these animals is minimal.

“Why build this visitor center if you can’t even see the sheep?” asked another visitor.

Wildlife refuges are not zoos. Animals are not on display. Part of the excitement of a wildlife refuge is the possibility of glimpsing its showcased animal or other wildlife while exploring the surroundings. A visitor center aids in identifying the purpose of the refuge, as well as displaying information about the wildlife and its habitat. It may even portray the history of the area and cultures that preceded the arrival of Europeans.

Reasons for Visiting

People come to a refuge for a variety of reasons. Keeping a refuge secret, as the first visitor wished, would deprive others from discovering its wonders and its purpose. “I think refuges draw all sorts of people that have many different interests and different ways of learning,” says Juliette Fernandez, assistant manager of Buenos Aires NWR southwest of Tucson, AZ. “I think visitor centers are a hub for that, and they are one more piece in the pie that makes a refuge whole for people who come to appreciate the grounds.”

Buenos Aires Entry Sign

Buenos Aires Visitor Center

Not everyone comes to a wildlife refuge to hike and explore the outdoors. For those who prefer remaining indoors to investigate a refuge, a visitor center provides displays and information so visitors can learn about the history of the program or what is currently happening with an endangered species. And while the possibility of encountering refuge staff on the grounds is remote, generally someone is available in the visitor center to answer questions and provide information.


So why keep this treasure a well-kept secret? National wildlife refuges are accessible to anyone. They provide conservation, education, and recreation. They are used by birders, photographers, hunters, fishermen, outdoor enthusiasts, and many others. A visitor center draws visitors and informs them of the mission of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the particular refuge they are visiting. 

“It’s an educational opportunity,” says Amy Sprunger. And the more people are educated in conservation of wildlife and its habitat, the better chances that the wildlife and its habitat will be protected well into the future.

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