The Greatest Show on Earth

A look at America's National Wildlife Refuge System on its 100th anniversary

02-01-2003 // Jessica Snyder Sachs
The Greatest Show on Earth magazine layout - flock at dusk

The numbers are extraordinary by any measure: more than 700 species of birds, 220 mammals, 250 reptiles and amphibians, at least 200 fish and countless varieties of insects and plants. America's National Wildlife Refuge System provides sanctuaries for most of the native species that fly, run, walk, slither, swim and take root in this country. It is the world's largest network of public lands and waters set aside specifically for the protection of wildlife. And on the eve of its 100th anniversary on March 14, refuge managers have much to celebrate. But as this issue's articles explain, they also face some serious challenges in the years ahead.

 

THE EARLY MORNING SUN glints off the amber, "swamp tea" waters of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, as an eager group of Sunday birders clamber up its wetland observation tower. For the last half mile of boardwalk, they've heard the croak of sandhill cranes above the rustling sound of the sawgrass blocking their view. "They'll be lifting off any day now," says refuge ranger Maggie O'Connell of the swamp's winter population of several thousand greater sandhill cranes. Though only mid-February, winter is already loosening its halfhearted grip on southern Georgia's Great Okefenokee, one of the largest intact freshwater ecosystems in the world.

Photo of Okefenokee Swamp

AMERICAN TREASURES: Canoeists paddle past giant cypress trees in Georgia's Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, which attracts more than 400,000 visitors a year.

PHOTO BY DAVID A. PONTON

 

Atop the 50-foot tower, O'Connell surveys her domain. "Seventeen miles to the horizon without a stitch of solid ground," she marvels. Indeed, the dense vegetation of this landscape grows atop floating peat-bog islands, the largest crowned by bald cypress draped in ghostly green Spanish moss. For good reason, the Creek Indians dubbed this Oguafenogua, the "land of the trembling earth." Stomp hard enough and even the trees shake.

Like the majority of the 539 units in America's National Wildlife Refuge System, the Okefenokee was protected to serve as sanctuary for migratory waterfowl such as the cranes, teals, mergansers, herons and egrets seen feeding across its open, wet "prairie." But the Georgia reserve has evolved far beyond its "duck factory" genesis.

Photo of National Wildlife Refuge Staff with coyote pup

 

SAFE ZONE:The imperiled Mexican wolf is getting help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through recovery efforts at places such as Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, where researcher Colleen Buchanan holds a pup.

PHOTO BY RYAN HAGERTY U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This refuge's expanded purpose becomes clear as the sun rises high enough to banish the morning chill, and boaters begin paddling and motoring up the swamp's 120 miles of canals and slow-moving streams. Blinking back at them from the shore or half-submerged in the shimmering blackwater are the sleek American alligators that are among the Okefenokee's star attractions. Many of the visitors will linger after returning to dock--lunching on the refuge's grassy picnic grounds, touring its new million-dollar environmental education exhibit, and shopping for souvenirs in the gift shop. Some will spend the night, either in the state park easement on the refuge's west side or deep in the swamp, on one of seven overnight canoeing platforms.

In addition to playing host to more than 400,000 visitors a year, the staff of this national wildlife refuge have launched an ambitious long-term project to restore and expand the area's upland stands of rare longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat--home to endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and threatened gopher tortoises, indigo snakes and Florida black bears. To this end, nearly half the refuge staff work on the fire crews that conduct prescribed burns to beat back the saw palmetto and slash pine that once were kept in check by seasonal wildfires. "We figure it'll take about 300 years of active management to restore the area," says O'Connell.

Now, as it prepares to celebrate its centennial year beginning in March, the National Wildlife Refuge System as a whole is experiencing an equally radical deepening and expansion of its purpose. Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it is the world's only national network of public lands set aside specifically for wildlife. And for years, it struggled without any sense of unifying mission. Beginning with President Theodore Roosevelt's founding of the first refuge--Florida's Pelican Island in 1903--one unit after another has flickered into being with its own narrowly defined mission. Before Roosevelt left office in 1909, these included 56 big game preserves and bird reservations such as Idaho's Mindoka refuge for ducks and geese, Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains for bison and elk, and Alaska's Fire Island for moose.

Photo of Great Emperor Goose

 

LAST FRONTIER: The refuge system more than doubled in size in 1980 when Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. New reserves created by the law included Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, where an emperor goose guards its eggs (right). The refuge sprawls across 21 million acres, about the size of the state of Maine.

PHOTO BY STEPHEN J. KRASEMANN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to playing host to more than 400,000 visitors a year, the staff of this national wildlife refuge have launched an ambitious long-term project to restore and expand the area's upland stands of rare longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat--home to endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and threatened gopher tortoises, indigo snakes and Florida black bears. To this end, nearly half the refuge staff work on the fire crews that conduct prescribed burns to beat back the saw palmetto and slash pine that once were kept in check by seasonal wildfires. "We figure it'll take about 300 years of active management to restore the area," says O'Connell.

Now, as it prepares to celebrate its centennial year beginning in March, the National Wildlife Refuge System as a whole is experiencing an equally radical deepening and expansion of its purpose. Administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it is the world's only national network of public lands set aside specifically for wildlife. And for years, it struggled without any sense of unifying mission. Beginning with President Theodore Roosevelt's founding of the first refuge--Florida's Pelican Island in 1903--one unit after another has flickered into being with its own narrowly defined mission. Before Roosevelt left office in 1909, these included 56 big game preserves and bird reservations such as Idaho's Mindoka refuge for ducks and geese, Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains for bison and elk, and Alaska's Fire Island for moose.

Since 1934, the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act has funded the acquisition of millions of acres of additional waterfowl habitat, concentrated up and down North America's four major migratory flyways. Among the first, Montana's Red Rock Lakes refuge became the last-chance sanctuary for the highly endangered trumpeter swan in 1935.

In 1966, Congress passed the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act, enlarging the refuge system further with several thousand small prairie pothole wetlands designated as "Waterfowl Production Areas." And in 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act nearly tripled the refuge system's holdings with some 54 million acres of pristine arctic and subarctic habitat.

By the time the 500th refuge--West Virginia's Canaan Valley--was established in 1994, the system encompassed more units than the National Forest Service and more land (90 million acres) than the National Park Service's holdings. Yet much of the refuge system continued to be managed under a mishmash of policies and regulations that left its lands vulnerable to such strangely incompatible uses as jet skiing, dune-buggy racing, livestock grazing, oil drilling, even military war games and bombing runs. Refuge managers opposing such uses stood on shaky legal ground unless they could show that the activities directly threatened the specific purpose for which their refuges had been established.

A case in point: In 1990, the manager of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast tried to remove privately owned cattle from the preserve's wildlife-rich Matagorda Island. Biologists had determined that overgrazing had already degraded the island's otherwise pristine habitat, including nesting sites for endangered sea turtles and underbrush vital to wintering songbirds. The problem was that Congress had established the refuge in 1937 specifically as a sanctuary for the world's last wild population of whooping cranes.

"We could show that the cattle were definitely degrading the overall ecosystem of Matagorda Island," explains National Wildlife Refuge System Director Dan Ashe. "But technically, in order to deny the grazing permit, we had to show that it was incompatible with the refuge's original purpose." In the end, federal administrators stood behind the refuge manager's claim that cattle grazing constituted an incompatible use. "But a lot of people, including our own attorneys, thought we were stretching things," admits Ashe.

Photo of Volunteer planting in wetland

 

INVALUABLE HELP: Volunteers, such as this girl planting mangrove trees at Pelican Island, perform about 20 percent of the work throughout the system.

PHOTO BY ROBERT OWENS U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Such legalistic hand-tying came to an end in 1996, with an executive order by President Clinton, followed the next year by the bipartisan passage of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act. These two legal directives set forth "conservation" as the refuge system's singular and all-encompassing purpose--a purpose against which any proposed use had to be judged. The groundbreaking Improvement Act also required the staff at every refuge to create a 15-year comprehensive conservation plan--guided, in large part, by public input. Indeed, by placing an emphasis on "wildlife-compatible" uses such as observation, photography and limited hunting, the law acknowledged that refuges are for people too.

Specifically, some 2 million hunters and 6 million anglers visit the refuge system each year. Twice that number--some 16 million visitors--come solely to watch wildlife or soak in the beauty and serenity of the nation's wildest places. Add busloads of students and tour groups taking advantage of environmental education programs and the tally swells to at least 35 million visitors a year. The importance of their input in setting the system's agenda for its second century can hardly be underestimated, says Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration and now NWF senior vice president for conservation programs. "The pressures on the refuge system have grown tremendously in recent years," she explains. "We have more threatened and endangered species, more demands for human activity on the landscape, and more development and encroachment from the outside. As a result, the job of safeguarding these wild places and passing them on to new generations demands a high level of public engagement."

In fact, the most serious threats to refuge wildlife and habitat--urban sprawl, water depletion, pollution and invasive species--originate outside refuge borders and, therefore beyond the system's authority. Consequently, progress depends on activism on the part of local citizens and allied conservation organizations.

In recent years, for example, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has depended on a large coalition of conservation groups, including NWF and its affiliate, the Georgia Wildlife Federation, to stave off plans by the chemical giant DuPont to excavate a 30-mile-long, 50-foot-deep titanium strip mine a few feet from the refuge's eastern border. The proposed mining operations would generate a 24-hour-a-day onslaught of dust, smoke, exhaust, noise and light directly alongside the refuge's main wildlife observation drive. Worse, scientific studies indicate the mine could irrevocably alter the Okefenokee's delicate hydrology and ecology. With no authority to stop operations off refuge grounds, refuge managers continue to rely on sustained and vocal public opposition to keep DuPont's plans at bay.

 

Photo of Tinicum Marsh

URBAN OASIS: Located near downtown Philadelphia, Tinicum Marsh (right) is the focal point of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, one of several units in the system that provide open spaces for both wildlife and people in large metropolitan areas. Local birders have recorded more than 280 species in and around the marsh, the largest remaining freshwater tidal wetland in Pennsylvania.

PHOTO BY JOHN AND KAREN HOLLINGSWORTH

 

Public opposition has, at least for the time being, helped play an even larger role in confronting what many people view as the greatest single threat to the refuge system in its 100-year history: the proposed opening of the coastal plain section of Alaska's 19.6 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling--a plan that the U.S. Senate voted down last year. Scientific studies by government wildlife biologists had confirmed that petroleum operations on the Arctic refuge would disrupt its vast caribou calving grounds and irreparably harm the region's delicate tundra ecosystem. More importantly, says Clark, "opening Arctic to drilling would totally blow apart the purpose of the entire refuge system. For if there's the will to violate a refuge as spectacular and ecologically unique as Arctic, what would stop the same from happening at the system's 75 million other acres?"

At the least, adds Clark, the 1997 Refuge Improvement Act makes doing so extremely difficult. "As there's no possible way to open up the heart of this refuge to drilling and call it 'compatible' with conservation," she says, "it would require Congressional legislation to literally set the Refuge Improvement Act aside."

More insidious threats to the system include a widening budget shortfall for staffing and maintenance, says Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the umbrella organization for more than 200 local refuge volunteer "friends" groups. "Wildlife refuges have long been the black sheep of federal land holdings in terms of monetary support," he says. Specifically, the system must manage more than 94 million acres--and the welfare of more than 200 threatened or endangered species--with an annual budget of $370 million, or less than $4 an acre.

"As a result," says Hirsche, "a great deal of conservation objectives are not being met." Primary among these has been the refuge system's losing battle with invasive species such as the Australian pine and Brazilian pepper trees supplanting native habitat at Florida's Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge; the zebra mussels and purple loosestrife crowding out native mollusks and wetland plant species in the Upper Mississippi National Fish and Wildlife Refuge; and nutria, a beaver-like Central American rodent, tearing up tidal marshes in Maryland's Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Also showing the strain of underfunding is the refuge system's aging infrastructure of access roads, buildings, water-management facilities and other assets.

The severe underfunding for maintenance and staff has also slowed the system's opening of new refuges, despite the annual influx of "Duck Stamp" money for land acquisition. "Before we acquire new areas, we have to ask ourselves whether we'll have the funds to manage them," explains Ashe. "Too often, I hear the argument, 'You don't have to do anything, just buy the land and protect it.' But 'protect' is an active verb."

Indeed, though much of the refuge system consists of wilderness where humans seldom tread, at a minimum, these places must be posted and patrolled. "In this day and age, even our most remote areas are no longer insulated from such illegal activities as drug trafficking, poaching and garbage dumping," says Ashe. "If we just left these places alone, I don't think anyone would be happy with what we'd find when we came back five years later." Moreover, a large percentage of the refuge system requires intensive management such as controlled burning to maintain ecosystem balance and active farming to provide grain for migratory waterfowl. "We need more maintenance workers, more equipment operators, more law-enforcement officers," says Ashe.

Photo of Key Deer

 

Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1957 to protect this small subspecies of white-tailed deer, of which fewer than 800 survive. The refuge is one of dozens established to safeguard rare species. The Florida reserve also shelters 21 other federally listed plants and animals.

PHOTO BY THUY SENSER

 

 

 

 

In particular, Ashe and conservation activists agree, the system needs more wildlife biologists. "The lack of biological expertise undermines any effort at strategic planning and wise management," says Clark. "Many of our refuges need extensive habitat restoration that can't be carried out because of this lack of biological expertise." At the very least, she explains, the system needs enough biologists to conduct wildlife surveys, monitor wildlife threats and prioritize spending at individual refuges.

For all these reasons, a coalition of 20 conservation groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, recently called on President Bush and Congress to nearly double the refuge system's budget. "Because of their strategic locations and acreage, our refuges provide safe havens for hundreds of threatened and endangered species, provide migratory stopover for millions of birds, while at the same time provide terrific areas for solace and enjoyment for people who want to experience nature," argues Clark. "But it's a system that desperately requires increased funding if it's going to address the needs of both wildlife and people."

The good news is that authorities in Washington, D.C., are finally getting the message. "We've seen sustained budget increases over recent years, including Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton's endorsement of a nearly $57 million increase for maintenance and operations in 2003," says Ashe, who credits conservation groups for their persistent lobbying on behalf of the refuge system. "Constituent organizations like the National Wildlife Federation have in the past five to six years rallied to our defense. It's in large part thanks to them that government leaders have been able to set aside political differences and support us."

Admittedly, recent federal funding increases fall far short of the refuge system's staggering maintenance backlog--currently estimated at more than $526 million, with another $700 million needed for high-priority projects such as restoring degraded habitats and promoting the recovery of endangered species.

Increasingly, refuges have come to rely on volunteers to pick up the slack. Every year some 30,000 volunteers donate more than a million hours of their time to driving heavy equipment, conducting habitat surveys, building boardwalks, running bookstores and nature programs, and lobbying for increased local, state and federal support. "That translates to about $13 million worth of services a year," notes Hirsche.

The need for volunteer support will only increase in the refuge system's second century. "These precious places are mere islands in the landscape, and we can't hope to ever acquire all the land we need," he explains. "As a result, the success of the system's conservation mission will depend on local volunteers becoming envoys to neighboring landowners and local governments, and in this way extending each refuge's wildlife objectives beyond its borders."

In the future that Hirsche envisions, "refuges will become shining examples for private landowners, state land managers and other federal land agencies of how they can all develop management policies consistent with species conservation."

New Jersey-based journalist Jessica Snyder Sachs visited the Okefenokee and Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuges while reporting for this article.

Safeguarding Wildlife Refuges

NWF and its affiliates are involved in a wide range of projects throughout the country to help National Wildlife Refuge System staff protect and expand their facilities. In Florida, NWF and the Florida Wildlife Federation are leading legal efforts to safeguard habitat for the endangered Florida panther and Key deer at two refuges threatened by development. The two groups are also working with the Georgia Wildlife Federation to help create a wildlife corridor linking Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and the Osceola National Forest. In Montana, NWF is assisting biologists at two refuges with endangered black-footed ferret recovery and prairie dog population programs. In New England, NWF affiliate, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, is seeking purchase of thousands of acres to expand the Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge. Last year, NWF and several affiliates mobilized a successful grass-roots effort to help convince the U.S. Senate to vote against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. NWF continues to push for protection of the refuge.

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