Engines of Ecotourism, Understaffed Wildlife Refuges Still at Risk

WASHINGTON, DC, October 7, 2005 (ENS) - National Wildlife Refuge Week begins on Sunday, an annual time to consider the 545 wildlife refuges in the United States. Interior Secretary Gale Norton took the economic approach with a report Thursday showing that nearly 37 million visitors in 2004 makes refuges an economic engine for the national economy.

“National Wildlife Refuges in the continental United States contribute $1.4 billion to our national economy and create nearly 24,000 jobs, the secretary said. "They generate $151 million in tax revenue for local, state and federal government."

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Hikers in New Jersey's Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge (Photo courtesy USFWS)
The report, Banking on Nature 2004: The Economic Benefits to Local Communities of National Wildlife Refuge Visitation, was compiled by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service economists.

"Our national wildlife refuges are not only beautiful places where fish and wildlife can flourish, they are also economic engines for their local communities, providing jobs, customers for local businesses, and tax revenue for local governments," Norton said.

"With 17 new refuges and a 30 percent increase in the refuge system budget since 2001, we are ensuring our refuges continue to be places of awe and wonder as well as economic vitality for local communities across the country."

The report reinforces the travel industry's belief that ecotourism is becoming big business, said Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association of America, who unveiled the report with the secretary.

But conservationists issued a stern warning about threats to many of the refuges. Defenders of Wildlife issued a report Thursday showing how issues such as border policy, western water management, energy development, air pollution, suburban development and other threats are eroding the largest system of protected lands in the world dedicated to wildlife conservation.

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Birders at California's San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth courtesy USFWS)
The report, "Refuges at Risk: America’s Ten Most Endangered National Wildlife Refuges 2005," says the threats facing the refuge system are "overwhelming the poorly staffed refuges."

“If we don’t turn back some of these immediate threats to our wildlife refuge system, America’s most amazing wildlife spectacles will simply not be there for our grandchildren,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife. “Whether it’s caribou in the Arctic Refuge, rare songbirds in Mingo Refuge, or jaguars in the Buenos Aires Refuge, where can we protect wildlife, if not in our national wildlife refuges?”

At Nevada's Moapa National Wildlife Refuge, a proposal to drill for water for Las Vegas may suck dry the refuge’s springs, which are vital for endangered species.

“Each of these 10 refuges, and the 535 other refuges in the country, is in a funding crisis,” said Schlickeisen. “Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge has only a quarter of one staff person’s time to restore and protect its fragile desert springs for an endangered species. Nearly 200 other refuges do not even have staff.

According to Defenders’ report, U.S. border and immigration policy is shifting illegal border crossing into sensitive desert habitats within Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.

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Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Water flows from several springs in the upper end of the valley to create a stream with a riparian and oasis area for rare species. (Photo by Jim Boone courtesy Bird and Hike)
A massive water diversion in California could completely alter the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Oil and gas wells in the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge have killed vegetation and polluted marshland habitat, while the Bush administration and many in Congress push plans to permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Noise and habitat exclusion from a proposed jet landing field next to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge threatens tens of thousands of swans, geese and ducks and the Navy pilots whose safety will be compromised by this plan that would mix large waterfowl and fighter jets.

“Next week is National Wildlife Refuge Week, a time to celebrate and experience the beauty and wonders of these remarkable lands. We can and must fix the problems facing our wildlife refuges,” said Schlickeisen. “We cannot sit by and watch the only public lands devoted to wildlife protection whither away. There’s simply too much at stake – not only for us but for future generations.

While Defenders’ "Refuges at Risk" project focuses each year on threats to our national wildlife refuges that are related to human activity, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita show that these special places are also vulnerable to natural catastrophes.

In addition to the human tragedy and damage the hurricanes did to people in the region, the storms also did tremendous damage to refuges in Louisiana, Alabama, Texas and Mississippi.

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Half the Louisiana barrier islands that make up the Breton National Wildlife Refuge are submerged as shown in this photo taken August 30, the day after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, by USGS research wildlife biologist Tommy Michot and USGS geographer Chris Wells. (Photo courtesy USGS)
Initial estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicate that Katrina caused more than $90 million in damages to these refuges, including damage to Breton National Wildlife Refuge, an island refuge off the coast of Louisiana, half of which was washed away.

The Service says that besides Breton, the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, Big Branch Marsh, Delta, Bogue Chito and Bayou Sauvage refuges appear to have hit hardest by the storm.

The Service is still assessing wildlife impacts from these storms. Defenders will urge legislators to address the needs of refuges slammed by Katrina and Rita, while also dealing with the threats that are the focus of Refuges at Risk report.

2005 Ten Most Endangered Wildlife Refuges, in alphabetical order:

The National Wildlife Refuge System contains 545 refuges and covers nearly 100 million acres in all 50 states and five territories, providing some of America’s most spectacular landscapes and supporting wildlife – from migratory birds to bighorn sheep, elk and caribou – as well as many endangered and threatened species.

“Our report clearly shows that the National Wildlife Refuge System faces increasingly complex threats,” said Schlickeisen. “If we can’t protect wildlife and habitat on our wildlife refuges, where can we protect them?”