Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge

Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge NPS Photo

Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge

Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1990 to protect, conserve, and restore habitat for wildlife native to the river's floodplain. The refuge consists of twenty-two islands and four mainland tracts scattered along 362 miles of the upper Ohio River. Most of the refuge's 3440 acres of land and underwater habitat are located in West Virginia; however, Pennsylvania and Kentucky each have two refuge islands.

Prior to European settlement, impressive forests of giant sycamore, silver maple, cottonwood and other trees covered numerous islands dotting the Ohio River. Later, agriculture, industrialization and navigation took a toll on the river and its forested islands. 

The refuge is important in conserving the "wild" Ohio within one of our nation's busiest inland waterways. Refuge islands are gradually returning to forested conditions after years of farming, oil and gas extraction, and other activities. The refuge works to protect wildlife and habitats native to the Ohio River and its floodplain. Migratory birds and endangered freshwater mussels are among the important wildlife emphasized on the refuge.

Of five islands remaining within Pennsylvania’s borders, Phillis Island and Georgetown Island remain undeveloped and compose part of the refuge. Evoking the river’s pre-colonial past, these islands support bottomland hardwood forests in several stages of growth that serve as a respite for a variety of raptors and songbirds, and home to beavers, minks and other critters. Surrounding the islands, a wet carpet of sand, gravel and cobble hosts an array of fish and mussel species, including the federally endangered pink mucket and fanshell mussels. Absent for several decades, the mussels are slowly returning to filter the slowly recovering river.

The Nature Conservancy transferred ownership of Phillis and Georgetown islands to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to become part of the refuge in 1991. Since then, the Service has implemented a management strategy reaching “from the tree-tops to the river’s bottom.” A primary goal has been to restore native forests on the islands by encouraging natural re-growth, and through planting trees in open areas. Additionally, scientists began reintroducing two mussel species with a historic presence on the islands. Planning is also underway to evaluate mainland wetlands and backwater areas for inclusion in the refuge. The restoration of these last remnants of key island ecosystems has not only benefited western Pennsylvania, but also will reach downstream to the Mississippi River, and eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.

Phillis and Georgetown Islands are accessible by kayak and canoe from Lock 57 Community Park Ohio River boat launch #12 located in Ohioville, Pa.