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National Wildlife Refuges: Poor Stepchildren

SINCE 1903, WHEN THEODORE ROOSEVELT established the first wildlife refuge in Florida, the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) has grown to 548 refuges that comprise more than 97 million acres– 13 million more than in the national park system. These places vary in size, from the half-acre Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota to the 19.3 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and they encompass forests, marshes, tundra, estuaries, deserts and coral reefs. There are refuges in all 50 states. Some are in wilderness, some within sight of skyscrapers. They are the only federal lands where conservation and wildlife, including about 260 species listed as endangered or threatened, take statutory precedence over other uses such as recreation, mining, forestry, farming and grazing.

Yet the system is teetering because of severe funding shortages. One-third of all refuges are now unstaffed; half of them no longer have a staff biologist. None have enough personnel and money to achieve their mandated missions–to protect, monitor and manage wildlife and habitat and to run recreational and environmental programs.

In September the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on the refuge system titled “Changes in Funding, Staffing, and Other Factors Create Concerns About Future Sustainability.” The report concluded: “In light of continuing federal fiscal constraints and an ever-expanding list of challenges facing refuges, maintaining the refuge system as envisioned in law–where the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of the refuge system are maintained, priority visitor services are provided, and the strategic growth of the system is continued–may be difficult.”

Even basic upkeep has been cut past the bone. The price tag for deferred maintenance on buildings, equipment, dikes and other essentials has reached $2.48 billion, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which administers the NWRS in the Department of the Interior. In May 2008, an alarming report by the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE), a consortium of 22 large conservation and wildlife organizations, whose members range from the Audubon Society to the National Rifle Association, found that because refuge personnel are overwhelmed with other duties, invasive species have claimed more than 2 million acres, crowding out native plants important to wildlife, including some endangered species, for forage, nesting and protection.

The NWRS has added little habitat in recent years, though money is available for that purpose through special funding mechanisms such as the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, often called the Duck Stamp, a federal waterfowl-hunting license that raises about $25 million each year specifically to buy land for refuges. This may be partly because the NWRS’ resources are already stretched thin, but it’s also because its realty office has been gutted and the acquisition process has become onerous under the current administration’s Interior Department.

THE ABSENCE OF LAW ENFORCEMENT has become a critical concern. A 2005 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended a corps of at least 845 officers for the NWRS, but about 245 now attempt to cover the entire system– an average of one officer for every 400,000 acres. In Alaska, the Arctic, Kanuti and Yukon Flats refuges share one officer for 30 million acres, an area bigger than Pennsylvania. (They also share one maintenance worker.) Unsurprisingly, refuge managers report worries about public safety caused by intrusions into restricted areas by hunters and photographers, poaching, wildlife trafficking, vandalism, drunkenness, destruction caused by transient illegal immigrants and even illegal drug labs.

No wonder a survey of all refuge managers in 2007 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) found that nearly two-thirds of them believe the system isn’t meeting its mission. An even higher percentage (67 percent) said they were not “optimistic about the future of the refuge system.” They rated morale as either poor (65 percent) or “at an all-time low” (26 percent).

In fiscal year 2008, a few Congressional leaders pushed through a budget increase for refuges of $36 million, to $434 million. (By comparison, the budget for the National Park Service is about $2.4 billion.) Congress seems to be waking up to the plight of refuges and may give them another increase in fiscal year 2009, against the White House’s wishes, but even another $36 million raise wouldn’t be near enough to catch up. The system’s backlog for operations–staff, equipment and projects considered essential–is now $1 billion. CARE estimates that the refuge system can’t meet its mission without a minimum annual budget of $765 million.

HOW DID REFUGES GET INTO THIS FIX? Gene Hocutt has some theories. He spent 29 years with the NWRS and worked on five refuges, mostly as refuge manager. He’s now refuge keeper for PEER, which keeps him in touch with refuge personnel all over the country. “Of all the federal and management agencies,” he says, “the National Wildlife Refuge System has always been the poor stepchild in terms of dollars, staff and visibility.”

That lack of visibility, he believes, led directly to a lack of funding. The NWRS’ narrow focus on wildlife and habitat fostered an exceptional conservation and research organization but ignored a crucial factor–the public. Refuges were almost invisible even in their own communities.

“People who grew up on a farm, grew up hunting, these are people who went into resource management years ago,” says Hocutt. “They weren’t used to dealing with politicians and chambers of commerce, networking and communicating. They thought, ‘I’m just going out with the wildlife and do science.’ Wake up! You’ve got to make a connection with the public.”

That’s slowly happening. In June 2008, Management Systems International (MIS) released an independent report on refuges commissioned by the Fish &Wildlife Service. MIS rated the refuge system “highly effective” in only one key area–its partnerships with volunteers, community support groups (“friends”) and other outside organizations. Twenty years ago only a few million people visited refuges each year, most of them hunters and birdwatchers. Now 37 million visit for a spectrum of outdoor interests, including visits by about 800,000 school children for environmental programs. The number of friends groups also has increased to 250 from 75 in 1994.

The National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA), an advocacy organization, has been helping communities establish volunteer groups at local refuges–140 of them in the last five years. These groups raise funds for programs and also take up some of the slack caused by staffing cutbacks.

“To put it into perspective,” says Evan Hirsche, NWRA’s president, “the volunteer force on refuges is approximately 30,000 people, and they are contributing 20 percent of the work being done.” That work is valued at $25 million per year, according to the GAO. This growing volunteerism, adds Hirsche, “ultimately translates into political support, and the core message is, ‘These places need more money.’”

The JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel, Fla., has benefited tremendously from the 1,500 members of its wildlife society. That volunteer group’s president, Susan Cassell, said the society raised $1.5 million to build a new education center and another $1.5 million to fill it with exhibits and also built a presentation pavilion and an observation tower. It buses 10,000 children to the refuge every year for environmental education and gives five grants of $5,000 each to teachers doing environmental projects. It also awards five scholarships a year to college students studying biology or environmental sciences.

Volunteers run the refuge’s bookstore, staff the education desk, answer questions out in the refuge and run free public events. (More than 800,000 people visit this popular refuge every year.) Volunteers also do bird counts and pull fishing line out of mangroves so that waterfowl don’t get ensnared. The society budgets $120,000 a year for programs and other needs at the refuge. “This all allows the refuge to use its money for other things,” says Cassell.

“Ding” Darling is one of the system’s most fortunate refuges, but it nevertheless lacks the funds to counteract invasive species and polluted water released from Lake Okeechobee or to restore the area damaged by Hurricane Charlie in 2004. Most refuges wish their list of problems was so short.

“The society equates to 11 full-time employees, which is absolutely huge,” says Rob Jess, who was the refuge manager at “Ding” Darling for six years, before he assumed the same position at Alaska’s Yukon Flats a year ago. “But that refuge is unique.”

He points out that the Sanibel refuge has a staff of 15 for 6,000 acres; Yukon Flats has 14 for 9.5 million. Sanibel has three maintenance staff members, and Yukon Flats shares one person with two other huge refuges. “I have friends who run some national parks here in Alaska,” says Jess, “and they each have 30 maintenance people.”
According to the studies by both the GAO and MIS, though staff has been cut throughout the NWRS, responsibilities have increased, especially paperwork. “Refuge system administrative reporting has reached an unbalanced and critical level,” says the MIS report, “and is diverting time and resources away from mission-critical activities.”

“To be honest, what’s being squeezed out are the resources themselves,” says Jess, “because it’s the one thing we can control. Surveys for sheep, caribou, grizzly and black bear; habitat work; prescribed burning–all the things that we should be doing are going away. We either do it on our own time or it doesn’t get done. So we’re working on Saturdays, working 12-hour days instead of eight. People are very resource-oriented here and very passionate.”

Yukon Flats is a crucial nesting area for about 2 million ducks, so that’s where Jess concentrates his resources. “Our moose populations are declining, and we aren’t able to study that like we would like to,” he says. “We aren’t able to study the potential for the reintroduction of the woodland bison. We aren’t even able to make a good-enough effort on ducks. Some are declining and some are okay, and we aren’t sure why. Managers at all refuges have to pick and choose species. We will get to the point where it’s ‘Do we allow the polar bear to die off to save three other species?’”

His point is echoed in the GAO report: “Fish & Wildlife Service has had to make trade-offs among refuges with regard to which habitat will be monitored and maintained, which visitor services will be offered, and which refuges will receive adequate law enforcement coverage.”
Hard choices have also shaped NWRS’ organization. In the name of efficiency, groups of refuges get “complexed,” which consolidates staff and resources at one refuge and leaves others mothballed, with only occasional monitoring. “What it means is that once every two weeks somebody goes to make sure that nobody has burned the buildings down,” says Hocutt. He once managed a group of refuges that included two in Massachusetts, one in New Hampshire, one near Charlestown, R.I., and the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge on the Connecticut coast. “And I’m managing these?” he asks. “When pigs fly. I’m just calling the police when something goes wrong.”

MEANWHILE, WILDLIFE CAN FALL through the cracks. After the Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey was slated to lose its manager and go unstaffed, the refuge’s friends group brought in a volunteer biologist who found endangered Indiana bats living there. “The system doesn’t have the resources to catalogue and monitor and know what they have,” says Hirsche. “It’s not their fault; they don’t have the money to do it. But when we don’t even know what’s on our refuges, it’s awfully hard to make good management decisions.”

The NWRS also needs to widen its perspective beyond waterfowl and ungulates, says David Skelly, F&ES professor of ecology. “When these refuges were established,” he says, “people had a fairly utilitarian view of what wildlife mattered, and they targeted a small set of species like a laser beam. For instance, a lot of refuges have been heavily modified and managed to benefit migratory waterfowl. And they have shown how important it is to support migratory species and how successful you can be. But it’s the kind of wildlife management that people were talking about in the early to middle 20th century, when the connections among different groups of wildlife either weren’t understood or weren’t in the foreground. I work on amphibians, for example, and much of what happens in wildlife refuges is detrimental to them–dredging and damming.”

Skelly noticed a different attitude recently when he was asked to consult on the planning process for the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. It extends throughout the Connecticut River watershed, which connects Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. “They’re acquiring properties to protect watersheds and drainages and streams,” says Skelly, “which could get them into thinking along lines more like the rest of the conservation world, integrating wildlife management across species and larger areas.”

Some people think the refuge system can’t thrive until it becomes a separate agency. That’s the goal of the Blue Goose Alliance, which was started by a number of former employees of the NWRS and Fish & Wildlife Service. “If Congress was creating the refuge system today,” says William Reffalt, a former chief of the NWRS who spent 24 years with the Fish & Wildlife Service, “there’s no way anyone would suggest that it shouldn’t be a separate agency, because of its size and complexity and reach. But because it’s an historical artifact that started small, it didn’t happen.”

Stuffed inside the Fish & Wildlife Service, which already has too much to do, refuges often get pushed to the end of the line. “The regional directors seem to think they can take care of refuges almost in their spare time,” says Reffalt. “We believe that a separate refuge agency could make decisions to keep the system healthy rather than caving in to Fish & Wildlife Service needs.”

ASIDE FROM LOW FUNDING and low status, the NWRS faces several other issues. Development is encroaching on many refuges that were once in rural areas, for instance, and President Bush and others want to drill in refuges such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Yukon Flats.

Reffalt, Hocutt and others also worry about the use of so-called annual funding agreements (AFAs) under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which allows tribes to apply for authority over many functions at refuges and national parks. Political appointees in the Interior Department pressured the Fish & Wildlife Service to sign the first extensive AFA in July 2005. It gave the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) half the duties at the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge in Montana despite a petition by more than 100 refuge managers who called the arrangement unworkable.

In December 2006, the Fish & Wildlife Service terminated the agreement, citing CSKT’s multiple failures to perform duties, supply qualified personnel and account for funds. Nevertheless, two weeks later the Interior Department stepped in again and ordered the Fish & Wildlife Service to renegotiate the agreement. The new AFA, signed in June and in effect since October 1, transfers all jobs to CSKT, with the exception of a refuge manager and a deputy. In December, PEER sued the Interior Department and FWS on the grounds that the arrangement violates federal law. Other tribes are reportedly preparing requests for AFAs at other refuges and parks.

The refuge system must also adapt to emerging environmental issues such as climate change and water scarcity, which will require research, monitoring and nimble management. But since most refuges can barely meet the needs of the present, there’s no time or money for future challenges.

“It can be fixed,” says Hocutt. “It’s so fixable. We have the most salable product in the world in our national wildlife refuges, and the majority of them are within 20 miles of a major population center. But we have to develop a strong constituency, and we have to have a seat at the table when money is being divvied up.”

©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.