U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Releases Flawed New Wilderness Policy for Wildlife Refuge System

Nov 14, 2008

WASHINGTON — The Wilderness Society (TWS) today criticized the Bush Administration for its hasty release of a flawed new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wilderness stewardship policy for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Major deficiencies of the new policy, issued yesterday, are that it fails to take into account the issue of climate change in managing the 21 million acres of designated Wilderness within the nation’s 540 wildlife refuges, and that it exempts all refuge lands in Alaska from requirements for wilderness reviews. In addition, the policy was released without any opportunity for public comment — a serious problem given the document’s other shortcomings.

“National wildlifer refuges all over the country, but especially those in Alaska, are critically important as we look at the impacts of climate change on our public lands,” said Maribeth Oakes, Refuge Program Manager at TWS. “It is outrageous that there is nothing in the new policy about managing refuge Wilderness to protect habitat, species, and migration corridors in a time of climate change. This is a serious omission when Refuge System lands will be among the first to be impacted by the temperature changes associated with global warming.”

TWS also expressed strong concern that Alaska’s refuges, which make up the bulk of the National Wildlife Refuge System’s overall acreage and contain the most designated Wilderness, are not subject to wilderness review under the new plan. “More than 80 percent of America’s refuge lands are in Alaska, and if you take them off the table, then you’ve turned your back on a significant portion of the refuge system,” Oakes noted. “Wilderness reviews are a necessary step for future Wilderness designation, and protecting wilderness is critical in managing our public lands in a changing climate. By shutting down future wilderness reviews on all refuge lands in Alaska, where global warming already is having a major impact, the Bush Administration has effectively closed the door on a vitally important management tool.”

The new policy — the first revision of this major policy document since it was originally issued in 1986 — will provide guidance for refuge staff on how to manage Wilderness lands within the Refuge System. A Clinton Administration draft of a revised wilderness stewardship policy was published in 2001, and received more than 4,000 public comments, but the USFWS was unable to finalize the policy before President Bush was elected.

“This is the policy that will govern Wilderness management decisions for many years — decisions that are critical to visitor experience, wildlife habitat, and the protection of these lands as an enduring resource,” said Maribeth Oakes, Refuge Program Manager for TWS. “It is ironic that, just as more people are engaging in the political process and demanding more openness from their government, the Bush Administration has once again resorted to making policy behind closed doors. The release of this document without an opportunity for public comment is a disservice not only to the Wilderness lands already protected within the National Wildlife Refuge system, but also to potential future designated Wilderness.”

Wilderness areas are a source of clean water, wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities. Sound wilderness management practices not only protect resources, but also ensure that visitors to refuge wilderness see the landscape and wildlife in a natural condition. With open space declining, public use and recreation within these areas is likely to increase. The implementation of a strong refuge wilderness policy that adheres to the tenets of the Wilderness Act of 1964 is a top priority for the public, for refuge managers, and for all the resources the wilderness areas of the Refuge System are meant to protect,” Oakes stresssed. “It’s a shame that the Bush Administration didn’t take its responsibility — and the public’s role — more seriously.”