National wildlife refuge system, inspired and created by Theodore Roosevelt, imperiled by government shutdown

January 21, 2019 5:02 am

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

There is no greater land conservation system in the world than the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System.

And that system, always under-resourced, is now further imperiled by the ongoing government shutdown.

Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and spanning 850 million acres of land and water, the refuge system is the world’s largest conservation mosaic set aside for habitat and wildlife.

Its range and scope are breathtaking. The system ranges from the storied Chincoteague Island Refuge in Virginia to the less well-known Presquile Refuge, an island in Virginia’s James River, and from the big, wild and remote Arctic Refuge with its 19.3 million acres to the .57 acre Mile Lacs Refuge in Minnesota. It includes both the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Urban National Wildlife Refuge complex and the iconic J.N. “Ding” Darling Refuge on the subtropical barrier island of Sanibel, Fla.

The refuge system protects 700 types of birds, 220 varieties of mammals, 250 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, about a thousand species of fish and countless invertebrates and plants. Refuges provide havens for some 380 endangered species, from the Florida panther to the polar bear. And, with 80 percent of the U.S. population currently residing in urban communities, the refuge system has also evolved 101 urban wildlife refuges to provide urban communities with desperately needed access to nature.

The refuge system evolved from the vision of President Theodore Roosevelt, who foresaw the need to bring to public consciousness to the protection of the great outdoors by forging relationships across myriad interests including hunters, anglers and the conservation community at large. Since Roosevelt’s creation of the first refuge in 1903 at Pelican Island, Fla., the refuge system has grown to a conservation mosaic of 567 national wildlife refuges — at least one in every state.

And while largely set aside for habitat and wildlife, the nation’s refuges are also, with few exceptions — the government shutdown being one — open to the public for hiking, fishing, camping, birding, angling, hunting, photography and simply enjoying the great outdoors.

A haven for thousands of species including hundreds of those that are threatened and endangered, the refuge system is also one of the most critical ecosystems for humanity, providing positive impacts on a national scale ranging from water and air filtration to critical buffers against severe weather effects. For example, as devastating as it was when Hurricane Harvey made Texas landfall in August of 2017 with winds topping 130 mph, it would have been much worse for residents and infrastructure if it were not for the fact that both were buffered by a long string of coastal and inland national wildlife refuges.

The highest storm surge of 12.5 feet in Aransas County exacted much less damage than would otherwise have been the case, primarily because it occurred in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

It is no secret that the refuge system perpetually struggles for funding. By some accounts, the system is funded at less than $1 per acre.

This stands in sharp contrast to the economic benefits the system offers by contributing significantly to the national economy.

A 2013 analysis by the Fish and Wildlife Service called “Banking on Nature” found that in FY11, 46.5 million visitors to refuges generated $2.4 billion in sales, and helped generate over 35,000 jobs and $792.7 million in employment income for regional economies

In addition, a separate study found that homes located within half-a-mile of a refuge and within eight miles of an urban center were found to have higher real estate values. The chronic funding challenge facing these life-giving landscapes is also coupled with more contemporary challenges such as invasive species, climate change, pollution and encroachment from urbanization — all of which have only made the job of refuge staff that much the more complex and difficult.

The government shutdown compounds and exacerbates these negative effects by adding new ones such as vandalism and the loss of revenues from visitor centers. Many refuges have volunteer-based “friends” organizations that staff gift shops and bring much-needed additional volunteer hours and revenue to an already underfunded system.

When the government is closed, so are these facilities. In addition to the obvious loss of management across the system, in-depth employee expertise is also at risk since personal financial hardship or uncertainty forces furloughed workers to seek employment elsewhere.

And, while efforts are under way by the agency to keep a small fraction of refuges open during the shutdown, this is unfortunately not enough to sustain the system as a whole. Even as the refuge system is an enviable example of conservation at its best, it is also one in dire need.

Every day new perils emerge, challenging the survivability of species and imperiling critical natural resources — whether through habitat fragmentation, climate change, repeal of critical conservation measures or political forces. This is no time for a government shutdown. The impacts of the current shut down reach far and wide. They negatively impact the thousands of visitors who normally can enjoy this unique system of public lands, and they force valuable staff to rely on personal dedication and tenacity to manage them with totally inadequate resources.

To our federal legislators: Stop this senseless waste of time, talent and resources. End the shutdown and ensure that the National Wildlife Refuge System continues not only to be a pre-eminent example of wildlife preservation and excellence for our citizens, but an envy for the rest of the world.


Rebecca R. Rubin is chairman of the board at National Wildlife Refuge Association, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the National Wildlife Refuge System, and president and CEO at Marstel-Day environmental consulting.

Mike Baldwin is board president at “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society and an officer of the board at National Wildlife Refuge Association.

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Mike Baldwin
Mike Baldwin

Mike Baldwin serves as an officer of the board at the National Wildlife Refuge Association. He is vice president and advocacy chairman of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society and co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, an alliance of local, state and national conservation and environmental organizations dedicated to full restoration of the greater Everglades ecosystem.