Talking To …

Finding nature in the city
December 15, 2023

By William Cramp Fit Flyer staff | When Brianna Amingwa was growing up in Detroit, she didn’t know much about nature. But she knew she loved animals. She studied animal science in college and then worked at wildlife refuges in Ohio, Iowa, and Minnesota.

For the past six years, she has been a supervisory park ranger and educator at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the city of Philadelphia and Tinicum Township. “I wanted to work with kids who might not know as much about nature, like me when I was younger,” says Ranger Brianna, as she likes to be called.

The wildlife refuge covers 1,000 acres with 10 miles of trails and three habitats: forests, fields, and tidal marsh, she says. Squirrels, rabbits, skunks, foxes, deer, turtles, fish, snakes, birds, and other animals live in the refuge year-round. Some birds stop there when they migrate during the spring and fall. People also visit to enjoy and learn about nature, hike, and walk their dogs.

The most distinctive feature of the refuge is the tidal marsh, which is land where the amount of water increases and decreases with the ocean tides.

The Tinicum Marsh—the freshwater tidal marsh at Heinz—is more than a home for animals, Ranger Brianna says. It helps to prevent water from flooding nearby neighborhoods where people live.

Because the refuge has freshwater—not salt water—it offers a home to plants and animals that can help keep it clean. For instance, mussels take in dirty water and filter it to remove pollution, Ranger Brianna says. One mussel can filter up to 15 gallons of water in a single day.

“Some people even call the wetlands the kidneys of the watershed,” she says. “Your kidneys clean the toxic stuff out of your body. The wetlands do the same thing” for the watershed. A watershed is the land area where runoff drains into streams, lakes, creeks, or other bodies of water.

Even though nature does a good job of cleaning the water, Ranger Brianna explains that the wildlife refuge staff and volunteers need to help too because of pollution such as litter.

“Some reasons that the water is less healthy come from what’s happening around the refuge,” she says. For example, salt used on icy roads gets into the water. So do grease from cars and fertilizer from people’s yards.

“One thing we do is plant native plants that have roots that can suck up pollution,” she says.

A native plant is one that grows naturally in an area.

The wildlife refuge staff also helps by reconnecting channels of water that have been cut off from the marsh. This helps “the water flow better—the way that nature was supposed to work,” Ranger Brianna says.

The wildlife refuge is in danger from climate change. The warming of the atmosphere is causing what Ranger Brianna calls “intense storm events,” which flood the whole marsh, washing away roads and flooding bridges. She worries that such storms could get worse.

When storms come through the marsh, Ranger Brianna says, they pull in a lot of water that can carry pollution. “Some trash from other places can come in,” she says. “Imagine water from a landfill coming here. It can damage the place, hurt the land, and bring in different pollution.”

She says learning about the marsh can help us understand how to protect it and keep the community healthier.

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