*Update January 2024

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to pause our planning efforts to consider authorizing a new refuge in the French Creek Watershed. This pause will allow us an opportunity to further understand what role, if any, the Service could play to better support local conservation needs. Robust community engagement and support is essential when considering the authorization of a new refuge, and we look forward to continued conversations to determine how we can best support locally led conservation efforts in the French Creek region.

The French Creek watershed is recognized as one of the most biologically diverse watersheds in the eastern United States. This watershed supports 27 species of mussel, six of which are federally threatened or endangered. French Creek also contains 15 species of darters, two of which are state endangered. These species collectively contribute to French Creek’s remarkable biodiversity.

The Service and its conservation partners, including Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, French Creek Valley Conservancy, Foundation for Sustainable Forests and the Pennsylvania Game and Fish Commission, have a history of collaboration regarding conservation actions in the French Creek watershed. The Service has long supported conservation in the watershed through our work at Erie National Wildlife Refuge and through our Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, which works on a voluntary basis with willing landowners to conserve and improve wildlife habitat on private lands. The Service and partners have been interested in exploring whether an expanded Refuge System presence in the watershed could contribute to a network of intact, resilient, and connected natural areas and working lands sustaining healthy and diverse populations of fish and wildlife. 

As part of the Land Protection Plan process and consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Service hosted two public scoping sessions in late April 2023 to share information on the Refuge System; discuss the significance of French Creek to the Service’s conservation mission; outline what a refuge presence could look like; and solicit participants’ input about conservation considerations for French Creek. The Service also met with a variety of partners and stakeholders about the proposed project, including state and county officials, nongovernmental organizations, private landowners, and others.

As a result of our outreach efforts, we learned about residents’ deep affection for French Creek. We heard about the importance of the continued use of prime agricultural lands, that residents value the rural character of the French Creek watershed and want to ensure its persistence, and that local land trusts are valued within the community and trusted in their land protection efforts. It is our intention that any efforts by the Service support these sentiments.

While we believe greater involvement in French Creek by the Service can be additive to current conservation efforts, we need the support of landowners and the conservation community to succeed. This is doubly true when contemplating conservation easement conservation easement
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a government agency or qualified conservation organization that restricts the type and amount of development that may take place on a property in the future. Conservation easements aim to protect habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife by limiting residential, industrial or commercial development. Contracts may prohibit alteration of the natural topography, conversion of native grassland to cropland, drainage of wetland and establishment of game farms. Easement land remains in private ownership.

Learn more about conservation easement
efforts. We have benefited from conversations with agricultural producers and look forward to further dialogue to better understand the potential role the Service could play in this watershed.

For more information about this project, please see the Frequently Asked Questions documents.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is evaluating creation of a new national wildlife refuge national wildlife refuge
A national wildlife refuge is typically a contiguous area of land and water managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  for the conservation and, where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.

Learn more about national wildlife refuge
to conserve currently unprotected, high priority fish and wildlife habitats in northwestern Pennsylvania and southwestern New York.

In collaboration with landowners, outdoor enthusiasts, conservation partners, and local communities, the Service proposes to identify lands for protection as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System within the French Creek watershed. If approved, these lands would be incorporated into a new National Wildlife Refuge that may encompasses portions of Chautauqua County, New York and Crawford, Erie, Venango, and Mercer Counties, Pennsylvania.

An in-depth, collaborative effort over the past 20 years indicates that currently unprotected habitats within the French Creek watershed support critical populations of fish and wildlife appropriate for protection by the National Wildlife Refuge System, primarily threatened and endangered freshwater mussels, and significant populations of native darters. This assemblage of aquatic life, once common throughout the northeast, is now largely absent. Further, the associated wetlands and other habitats support waterfowl and migratory birds of conservation concern. These species and habitats face habitat loss from land use changes, climate change climate change
Climate change includes both global warming driven by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns. Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century humans have had an unprecedented impact on Earth's climate system and caused change on a global scale.

Learn more about climate change
, competition from invasive species invasive species
An invasive species is any plant or animal that has spread or been introduced into a new area where they are, or could, cause harm to the environment, economy, or human, animal, or plant health. Their unwelcome presence can destroy ecosystems and cost millions of dollars.

Learn more about invasive species
, and other stressors.

The process of establishing a new national wildlife refuge requires preparation of a land protection plan (LPP) and environmental assessment (EA) which will be made available for a 45-day public review and comment period.  The responsibility to approve or disapprove the proposal rests with the Service’s Director. The LPP/EA will propose a boundary within which the Service may acquire interests in lands from willing sellers. Land protection work could be achieved with fee title or conservation easement acquisition. Landowners who do not wish to sell or donate interests in land to the Service are under no obligation to do so.

Refer to this site periodically, as documents and updates will be posted as available. Direct questions and comments to:  FW5frenchcreekplan@fws.gov

Public Scoping Recap 

June 4, 2023 

Given the high ecological importance of French Creek, we are interested in its conservation for the continued benefit of its rich array of aquatic life and evaluating what role the Service can play in conserving the area. Currently there is no proposal and no timeline to develop a land protection plan. Our progress will be dictated by stakeholder feedback as we refine a proposal that best meets biological conservation goals and is acceptable to potential sellers.  

This summarizes feedback received at the late-April listening sessions in Meadville and Edinboro, as well as emails, telephone conversations and discussions with the public and stakeholder organizations.  

How are national wildlife refuges established? 

National wildlife refuges can be administratively established through a land protection plan, a process that involves public engagement. 

Steps in preparing a land protection plan: 

  1. Public scoping to define issues important to the public [WE ARE HERE] 
  2. Draft proposal and public review/comment  
  3. Final plan 
  4. If final land protection plan is approved by the FWS director, it authorizes the Service to purchase lands from willing sellers.  A refuge is established once the first tract is acquired. 
  • We have no proposal currently, rather we are evaluating whether the Service can play a role in a conservation effort in French Creek, and if so, what that might look like. That’s the purpose of this current effort to solicit input from the public. 
  • Conservation easements are an option. We’re considering both fee and easement acquisition. Easements are often a good option in working landscapes, whereby the land continues to be managed by the landowner, but the landowner is compensated for some restrictions placed on the property, such as restricting future development and creating vegetated buffers. 
  • It’s important that whatever is proposed be successful. Success is a land conservation effort that meets the needs of aquatic life in French Creek while also being attractive to landowners within the project area. 
  • If a proposed plan is produced, it will be shared widely for public review and comment. These comments will be considered and addressed in development of a final plan. 

Key Points: 

  • Lands will be acquired only from willing sellers.  We will NOT use eminent domain to acquire refuge lands. 
  • If a refuge acquisition boundary is ultimately authorized, it places no additional regulations on private property contained within. 
  • Lands acquired in easement remain on the tax rolls in private ownership. The FWS would pay refuge revenue-sharing on any lands acquired in fee. 
  • National wildlife refuges offer local communities environmental, health, safety, educational, economic and recreational benefits
  • In 2017, refuges nationwide brought in $3.2 billion to local economies. 
  • Communities near refuges are eligible for federal funding through transportation grants improving roads and water crossings through the Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP). 

What would the plan look like? 

If proposing to acquire interests in lands, we are required to produce a land protection plan (LPP).  

An approved LPP does: 

  • Produce a boundary on a map inside of which we propose to acquire interests in land from willing sellers. 
  • Describe the mix of fee or easement lands to be acquired. 
  • Evaluate consequences of acquisition to “the natural and physical environment and the relationship of present and future generations of Americans with that environment,” per the National Environmental Policy Act.
  • Authorize us to pursue acquisitions from willing sellers. 

An approved LPP does not: 

  • Provide or guarantee funding to acquire lands. 
  • Detail how we would manage the lands. 

What we heard (general): 

  • Residents have a deep affection for French Creek. 
  • Maintaining use of prime agricultural lands is important. 
  • Residents value the rural character of the French Creek watershed and want to ensure its persistence. 
  • Local land trusts are valued within the community and trusted in their land protection efforts. 

We agree with all these themes! 

What we heard (specific): 

  • Concern for eminent domain. Our practice is to work with willing sellers. Pursuing eminent domain not only creates ill will, it’s also unnecessary, given there are more willing sellers at our refuges than we have the dollars or time to accommodate.  
  • Concern for additional land-use restrictions if a refuge is established. The presence of a national wildlife refuge places no restrictions or regulations on lands we have not acquired. 
  • Concern that we will regulate French Creek itself through water-quality measures. Establishment of a refuge would not regulate the French Creek waterway itself.  
  • Belief that we should fund local organizations to support their conservation work. While we often collaborate closely with conservation organizations, we have no mechanism to fund their work. For every dollar we contribute to land protection, we must acquire a dollar’s interest in lands. 
  • Concern that FWS involvement will change the landscape dramatically. This depends on the type of interest acquired; conservation easements would leave the landscape largely as is. There is also a timing component. Our pace of land protection is slow – both for an individual acquisition and on a larger scale. It depends on the availability of willing sellers and money, and our staff capacity; this is a several-decade proposition. 
  • Concern about how public access will be managed. Should we acquire land in fee, we would have the right to manage public use – our practice is to support activities such as hunting, fishing and wildlife-viewing. Should we acquire a conservation easement, the overwhelming intent is to improve conditions for aquatic organisms in French Creek and the landowner would choose whether to allow public access. 
  • Concern about the timeline. We have no set timeline to develop a plan. Our progress will be dictated by stakeholder feedback as we refine a proposal that best meets biological conservation goals and is acceptable to potential sellers. 


FAQs about proposed new refuge land in French Creek.pdf

The Service is looking to establish French Creek National Wildlife Refuge in portions of Erie, Crawford, Venango and Mercer Counties in northwestern Pennsylvania and a portion of Chautauqua County in southwest New York. This is a document of frequently asked questions that pertain to this...


A bright blue sky obstructed by fluffy white clouds reflected off of a stream shot from inside a kayak
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages an unparalleled network of public lands and waters called the National Wildlife Refuge System. With more than 570 refuges spanning the country, this system protects iconic species and provides some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities on Earth.
A bright orange sky with a setting sun with a pond and vegetation in the foreground
The realty division of the National Wildlife Refuge System supports the acquisition and management of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands, using Migratory Bird Conservation and Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars.


A creek winds the woods, trees full of bright green leaves.
Erie National Wildlife Refuge consists of two separate land divisions. Sugar Lake Division lies 10 miles east of Meadville on the outskirts of Guys Mills village. The Seneca Division is about 10 miles north of Sugar Lake Division or four miles southeast of Cambridge Springs, PA.