Keeping Wildlife First in Our National Wildlife Refuge System

Celebrating America’s Wildlife Refuges on the 20th Anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act

In 1903, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt established Pelican Island as our nation’s first wildlife refuge. Roosevelt was famously concerned about the potential extirpation of resident brown pelicans whose plumage fetched top dollar in the fashion industry of the day—and he was determined to do something about it.

What began as one act to preserve the inherent value of wildlife and the beauty of nature quickly burgeoned into a bit of an obsession for Roosevelt. Over the next six years of his presidency, he set aside more than 50 refuge units and his actions inspired Congress to follow suit.

But even as this nascent network of conservation lands and waters grew over the succeeding decades, it lacked a guiding mission to unify and strengthen the collection of habitat designations. The Refuge System was a “system” in name only, without a foundational statute articulating policy direction and management standards to govern the system or individual refuge units. Without an “organic act,” special interests ran roughshod over the Refuge System, pressuring managers to allow every manner of land use and development on refuges to the detriment of the wildlife and habitat they were established to protect.

Congress needed to do something.

A System under Siege

The National Wildlife Refuge System we know today emerged gradually. Legislators first passed the Refuge Recreation Act of 1962 to authorize and fund refuge compatible recreation in response to growing public demand for these opportunities. Then in 1966, Congress passed the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act to help unify management of the system.

While both acts advanced important concepts for administering wildlife refuges, neither was sufficient to stem the misuse and abuse of refuges nationwide. And it got ugly. Oil and gas drilling, mining, agriculture, livestock grazing and high-impact recreation such as jet skiing and off-road vehicle use plagued refuges across the country. By the 1990s, more than 300 refuge units – over 60 percent of the System – were being subjected to harmful activities, putting species at risk and damaging rare and sensitive habitats.

Putting Wildlife First

The Refuge System finally received the clear direction it needed on October 9, 1997. The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, amended the Refuge Administration Act and provided an overarching mission and clear management direction for the entire Refuge System:

“The mission of the System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.”

The Refuge Improvement Act put wildlife first on national wildlife refuges, a precept that had never before been codified in law. It fundamentally strengthened the Refuge System, requiring the Secretary of the Interior to maintain the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of these public lands and waters. The new statute specifically mandated that all refuge uses be compatible with the primary purpose of the individual refuge and the wildlife conservation mission of the system. It insulated refuge managers from political pressure, empowering them to ensure that all refuge activities — even wildlife-dependent priority public uses like wildlife observation, environmental education, hunting and fishing — are consistent with wildlife stewardship objectives.

Properly implemented and adequately funded, the Refuge Improvement Act works brilliantly. But even as we celebrate its twentieth anniversary, we’re fighting to preserve both the law and our system of wildlife refuges.

Here We Go Again

Driven by special interests, the Trump administration and misguided members of Congress are bent on selling out our refuges for private gain, threatening decades of progress we’ve made to protect and restore our nation’s only system of lands and waters dedicated to wildlife conservation.

Budget proposals in both the House of Representatives and the Senate would pave the way for drilling in the iconic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The “SHARE” Act, a bill in the House, would recklessly waive environmental review for all management activities across the Refuge System. And a few fringe legislators want to give away wilderness wetlands in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in order to plow a destructive and unnecessary road through this internationally recognized reserve. The litany of Congressional attacks goes on.

Not to be outdone, last month The Washington Post revealed that the Trump administration is making illegal plans to authorize seismic exploration in the Arctic Refuge, the first step toward oil development in one of our nation’s last great wild places. This cynical attempt follows on months of administrative attacks on the Refuge System, from the concocted “review” of our marine national monuments with the intent of downsizing and reducing protections for these vital refuge units, to foolish and wasteful bids to build a border wall that would bisect numerous borderland refuges.

Let’s Not Go There Again

Our Refuge System is unrivaled in the world, comprising more than 850 million acres of wildlife habitat that supports more than 8,000 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and marine life and at least 380 threatened and endangered species of plants and animals. The System provides innumerable recreational and educational opportunities, supports more than 35,000 jobs and generates billions of dollars in local sustainable economic revenue.

But those entrusted with the responsibility to steward this unparalleled network of public lands and waters have careened far off course. Between the proliferation of legislative attacks and executive misdirection, Congress and the Trump administration have put the entire Refuge System – and the future of wildlife conservation in the United States—in jeopardy.

We cannot go back to the days of unruly, unregulated exploitation and abuse of our Refuge System. The Refuge Improvement Act was enacted for a reason – to make good on Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy and manage refuges first for wildlife. We must maintain the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of the Refuge System as mandated by its cornerstone law and continue to protect, strengthen and grow this incredible network of conservation lands.

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