The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the first tract of land for the refuge in 1996. The refuge currently consists of 8,707 acres. The goal of the refuge is to protect 20,000 acres of wetlands and its associated uplands along the Rappahannock River and its major tributaries. Refuge units are located in Essex, King George, Caroline, Richmond, and Westmoreland counties and include fresh water tidal marsh, forest swamp, upland deciduous forest, mixed pine forest, and grassland habitats.
In 2007, areas of the refuge were designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The National Audubon Society designates these areas based on criteria such as population, high concentration in a limited area, or other factors. The IBA designation coincides with areas of high bald eagle concentration.