Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1990 to protect, conserve, and restore habitat for wildlife native to the river's floodplain. 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 consists of twenty-two islands and three mainland tracts scattered along nearly 400 miles of the Ohio River. Most of the refuge's 3300 acres of land and underwater habitat are located in West Virginia; however, the islands extend from where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meet near Pittsburgh, into West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.
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. Rejuvenating these last remnants of key island ecosystems has not only benefited western Pennsylvania, but will reach downstream to the Mississippi River, and eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.
Phillis and Georgetown islands are adjacent to the Ohio River North Shore Trail.
Belted Kingfisher Photo Credit
Bob Summers and Margaret Straley