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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. Today, twenty-two of these islands shape the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which extends 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.
The refuge includes 362 miles of river, and encompasses 22 islands, or 3,354 acres of land and underwater habitat. Two islands—Phyllis Island (27 acres) and George Island (17 acres) fall within Pennsylvania.
Phillis Island and George Island are located in Beaver County, 32 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The refuge also includes islands located in parts of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.
Invasion by non-native vegetation, including Japanese knotweed, mile-a-minute and multi-flora rose. Zebra mussel invasion. Sand and gravel dredging.
Removing invasive vegetation. Restoring and regrowing former bottomland hardwood forest. Exploring the potential for protecting mainland wetlands and river banks.
Acquisition of Phillis and George islands in 1989. Establishment of the Ohio Rivers National Wildlife Refuge in 1990. Transfer of Phillis and George islands by The Nature Conservancy to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1991. Construction of a new refuge headquarters and visitors facility in 2006.
What You’ll See
Waterbirds, migratory songbirds and raptors, including bald eagle and peregrine falcon. Freshwater mussels. Beavers, cottontail rabbits, minks, muskrats, opossums, raccoons, woodchucks and white-tailed deer.
Phillis and Georgetown islands are open daily from sunrise to sunset for wildlife-oriented activities. Check in with the refuge headquarters about visiting refuge properties.
Learn more and plan your visit to the Ohio River Islands NWR.
The refuge headquarters is located in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Take exit 176 on I-77. Travel west for one mile on 7th street. Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge headquarters are located in a strip mall on the left. To reach Phillis and Georgetown islands, the best access is from the Broadway Wharf Public Ramp located on River Road, just off of SR 39 in East Liverpool, Ohio.