Senate Vote Ends Longstanding Debate Over the National Wildlife Refuge System

(09/09/1997) - Washington D.C.-- The U.S. Senate today ended a longstanding debate over the future of the National Wildlife Refuge System by approving legislation outlining management of the system's more than 500 refuges. By voice vote the Senate took up and passed a slightly amended version of the House-passed National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, H.R. 1420.

"On balance, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act is legislation worthy of its name and we look forward to President Clinton signing it into law," said Rodger Schlickeisen, President of Defenders of Wildlife. "Although we believe the bill focusses too much on encouraging recreational activities, it also contains many important new conservation provisions we have long advocated. It also specifically calls for conservation of biological diversity in all our refuges, " Schlickeisen added.

"Our wildlife refuges provide the last great sanctuaries for many species of wildlife from the shorebird and waterfowl populations at Grays Harbor in Washington and Cape May in New Jersey to the red wolf at Alligator River in North Carolina and the brown bear in Alaska," he said.

The future of the National Wildlife Refuge System has been the subject of a vigorous debate since Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) introduced comprehensive refuge management legislation in 1991. Conservation groups including Defenders of Wildlife strongly supported Sen. Graham's bill. Although it came close to enactment in the 103rd Congress, the Graham bill did not receive final approval. In 1995, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) introduced a version of refuge management legislation that was opposed by conservation groups. Versions of the Young refuge bill sponsored in the 104th Congress would have put recreation on equal footing with wildlife conservation, undermined efforts to regulate commercial and public uses of refuges, made it difficult to establish new refuges, and even encouraged the use of wildlife refuges for commercial alligator farming.

The current refuge legislation, H.R. 1420, was introduced in April of this year, following a March hearing on a Young refuge bill similar to the one he sponsored in the 104th Congress. At the March hearing, the original Young refuge bill was again strongly criticized by conservation groups including Defenders and by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who threatened a Presidential veto. H.R. 1420 was then produced after negotiations between various parties under the leadership of Secretary Babbitt.

The legislation establishes, for the first time ever, a congressionally articulated mission statement for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Since the first National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt at Florida's Pelican Island, the system has grown to more than 500 refuges.

"This legislation will help provide clear management direction and unity to the diverse network of wildlife habitats that comprise our National Wildlife Refuge System," added Defenders' Schlickeisen. In addition, the legislation establishes new planning requirements for each refuge and clarifies the standards and process used to regulate recreational and commercial uses.

One of the bill's most important conservation provisions requires that the Secretary of the Interior, who is responsible for the management of the National Wildlife Refuge System, ensure that the "biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of the system is maintained for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans." With this provision, the refuge system joins the National Forest System as the only other network of federal lands to have an explicit statutory direction to conserve biological diversity.

"Congress' explicit mandate to conserve the biological diversity that exists on our national wildlife refuges is an important milestone in the conservation history of the nation's public lands," noted Defenders' Schlickeisen.

Other important conservation provisions:

  • require the monitoring of the status and trends of wildlife populations an all refuges;
  • direct the Interior Secretary to plan for the continued expansion of the Refuge System in order to conserve the nation's ecosystems;
  • discourage commercial and recreational activities on refuges, such as jet skiing and boating, that are non-wildlife-oriented;
  • require the identification of conservation threats to individual refuges and actions necessary to address those problems;
  • and require the inventory of fish and wildlife populations during the development of plans for individual refuges.

At the same time, the bill promotes, and is likely to expand, refuge uses that focus on wildlife, such as bird watching, environmental education, hunting and fishing. Although the legislation contains some safeguards, Defenders of Wildlife believes that the bill's heavy emphasis on recreational uses could come at the expense of wildlife conservation programs on refuges. "During a time of tight federal budgets, we believe that an expansion of recreational activities on refuges could divert scarce federal dollars away from biological programs to pay for the administration of those uses," said Robert Dewey, Defenders of Wildlife's Director of Habitat Conservation.

"Although this refuge legislation is a mixed bag, its new conservation provisions are significant and mean that on balance the bill will enhance the refuge system's wildlife mission," Dewey added.

Defenders of Wildlife is a nonprofit membership organization of more than 200,000 members nationwide noted for its leadership on protection of endangered species and biological diversity. The organization assembled a noted commission on the future of the refuge system; a number of the commission's findings are reflected in the new legislation.



Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270