Location: Gautier, Mississippi
Webpage: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
General Description: Established in 1995 to protect the endangered Mississippi sandhill crane and the wet pine savannah habitat along the gulf coast. The refuge is 19,000 acres in four separate units with Interstate 10 running through the middle of it. The habitat is actively managed with restoration of the savannah habitat the primary focus. The major restoration tool is the reintroduction of fire to suppress the woody shrubs and trees, as well as, to improve nutrient cycling. Afforestation of longleaf pine to the savannah is also a major activity, which means the removal of slash pine plantations that cover nearly 90% of the refuge. There are hiking trails in each of the four units that make up the refuge and along with a small visitor center make an informative trip to a critical natural habitat.
1) The visitor center is very small, but really well done. In particular, the short film at the center provides an excellent overview of the history and importance of restoring this natural habitat. While the primary reason is for the protection of the Mississippi sandhill crane, the many benefits to other wildlife and plants that depend on the wet pine savannah are equally important.
2) We spent nearly an hour talking with the receptionist at the visitor center. Once she found out that we were wanting to become full time RVers, she was excited to tell us about her and her husband’s experiences. They spend at least a couple of months every year volunteering for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Although they don’t get paid for their time and effort, they get their hookups for free which amounts to about $700 a month in savings. Working only part time (about 20 hours a week) leaves them with a lot of time to enjoy the gulf coast. They have also volunteered at other Wildlife Refuges in the southeast, but like this refuge the best. She was confident that with my background in forestry that we would be welcomed as volunteers if and when we want to participate.
3) Although we did not see any Mississippi sandhill crane (this turns out to be rare – they are endangered by the way), we enjoyed the nature trail at the visitor center. It is an easy walk through a wet pine savannah that had recently been burned and the interpretative signs along the way were very informative. I would strongly recommend this refuge for anyone interested in unique or endangered habitats. We would certainly return to check out some of the other hiking trails when we are in the area.