The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in March 1984 on an 118,000-acre area that was donated by the Prudential Life Insurance Company. There were no inhabitants within the refuge area until the late 1700s or early 1800s, when settlers established a community called Beechlands near Milltail Creek. In 1885, three lumbermen from Buffalo, New York, purchased 168,000 acres on the Dare County mainland to set up a timber industry and camp at Buffalo City, near Milltail Creek. The land changed owners several times over the years and the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company eventually obtained it. In 1974, McLean Industries bought the land for a large farming experiment called First Colony Farms. The Prudential Life Insurance Company formed a partnership with McLean Industries to form the Prulean Corporation. In 1984, Prudential Life Insurance Company obtained all the Prulean Corporation land, as well as some of the First Colony Farms land. The Service continued to purchase land from willing sellers and the refuge now occupies 153,000 acres.
Due to the nature of the area, the plants that have evolved in this wetland have adaptations that allow them to thrive. Many of the herbaceous plants have hollow roots and stems that facilitate the movement of air throughout the plant. Many of the woody plants have buttressed trunks that widen dramatically at the base to help the tree stand during wind storms. Other woody plants have multiple stems that help them resist the flow of moving water better than a single large stem would. Cypress trees have knees growing out of their shallow root systems to aid in the introduction of oxygen into the roots. All plants in the wetlands have broad, shallow root systems because the water table is so high that roots do not survive at great depths. These broad root systems overlap with each other so the plants help each other remain standing in the saturated soil, much of which is muck or peat without any structure or strength.
The gameland sign in front of you shows how much the plants and wildlife adapt to the ever-changing habitat. Current challenges include climate change and sea level rise. Refuge staff and partners are finding innovative ways to help habitats and wildlife as these changes occur.