Investing More Than Hope in Our Refuges

Even as they praise the purchase of nearly 300 square miles of sugar-industry land by the state of Florida, environmentalists wonder whether this attempt to save Everglades National Park by restoring its water flow will translate into concern for wetlands in general.

"I think people have an understanding of what the Everglades is because it is a national park," said Laurie Wunder, a biologist at Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire and Maine. "The wildlife refuge system essentially performs similar functions, but refuges are not as recognized in the public eye. I'm not sure if it will translate into that kind of recognition."

Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs for the National Wildlife Refuge Association, said, "Wildlife refuges are small on the landscape, even though in total size [nearly 100 million acres], they have more land than national parks [84 million acres]. They are like postage stamps compared to parks.

"They are not as iconic like Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons and their majestic views. They are usually low in altitude but high in biodiversity. They contain all the habitat, and they are where all the animals go. Because they are so small, they have lots of pressures on them, such as encroaching development. But because they are not as dramatic, they often end up as a stepchild."

In May, the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, a coalition of 22 groups ranging from the NWRA, the Nature Conservancy, and the Audubon Society to hunting groups and the National Rifle Association detailed in a report to Congress that the underfunded system is deteriorating. The report said the system, currently receiving $434 million a year for operating funds, needs $765 million a year. With budget cuts eliminating 300 jobs in recent years, the operations and maintenance backlog has grown to $3.5 billion. The coalition says 2.3 million acres are being overrun with invasive plant species and the refuges have only about a quarter of the law enforcement needed to protect them and their visitors.

Last month, a House appropriations subcommittee proposed a raise in refuge operations to $469 million. Subcommittee chairman Norm Dicks, a Democrat from Washington state, said, "These refuges have been desperately understaffed, with almost 200 of our wildlife refuges having no staff at all to protect the wildlife and serve the visitors."

Environmentalists are grateful for any extra few million, but in Capitol Hill testimony last fall, NWRA president Evan Hirsche detailed needs that demand many more resources. Hirsche said that half of the 548 refuges do not have a single biologist, which runs contrary to the 1997 Refuge Improvement Act, where Congress said the Secretary of the Interior shall "ensure that the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of the system are maintained for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans." Hirsche said there was no active habitat management or wildlife surveys in the refuges along the Potomac River and that nationally, volunteers now do 20 percent of the work in the system.

"The refuge manager explains that he is 'hoping for the best,' for the eagles, herons, and hundreds of bird species" along the Potomac, Hirsche said. "Hoping for the best can't be what the architects of the Refuge Improvement Act had intended."

Hoping for the best will not be good enough in the long run, with wetlands from the Everglades to Umbagog to precious prairie potholes (for migratory waterfowl) likely to be among the first places to feel the effects of global warming. Umbagog, with the help of the Trust for Public Land, is in the middle of a several-year effort to expand the refuge, currently at 21,647 acres, to nearly 70,000 acres, partially to include adjoining upland forests.

"People are becoming aware that having land to complement refuges is important, but it's also hard to put the priority up there against things like healthcare that play an urgent part in society," said Rodger Krussman of the trust. "There's never enough money for conservation. We can always use more." Sorenson-Groves added, "If we could, we could add another 100 million acres to the system.

--Derrick Z. Jackson

(c) Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company

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