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The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge wants to change its visitor demographic

Chris Lowie with bear damage.JPG
Pamela D'Angelo
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Refuge Manager Chris Lowie shows damage by black bears to the Jericho Pavilion at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Nearly half the communities in cities adjacent to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge are Black. But visitors are mostly white. To change that, the refuge is partnering with regional stakeholders, Indigenous communities and the city of Suffolk.

The Great Dismal Swamp and the land that surrounds it have a long story to tell, beginning with the last Ice Age when there were mastodons, bison, elk and bears. Later, the land was occupied by Indigenous people who lived off the swamp. Then came colonists who drained and logged it. Inside the swamp, the enslaved sought freedom. What remains are ancestral stories and more than 300 black bears. And that just might be the hook for a city kid.

Great Dismal Swamp baby bear piggyback 2-15-22.png
Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
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In February, a mother black bear giving her cub a piggyback ride was caught on a refuge wildlife camera.

“Bears. Bear damage,” says refuge manager Chris Lowie. He points to poles holding up the pavilion at the Jericho Trailhead. They’re chewed, scraped and clawed. Black bears love them but…

“It’s getting to the point where it’s unsafe,” Lowie explains.

Volunteers are replacing them. But the pavilion is two miles into the refuge. And getting school groups to visit, even those just a few miles down the road, is difficult.

“To take a bus trip these old logging roads, they’re single lane, they’re elevated off the ground, turning radius for a bus," he says. "We just don’t have the facilities.”

So the refuge will bring the park closer to the city of Suffolk. With the help of local and regional partners, it’s buying land next to the main road to build an education center with interpretations from the Nansemond Tribe and African Americans who have ancestral ties to the swamp.

“It’s always been a refuge for wildlife and people and it always will be," Lowie says. "So, here we just want to highlight more of the refuge for people part in the history of the swamp.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.