Interior: wildlife refuges drive billions of dollars to local economies

National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, WY.

Photo: USFWS Mountain-Prairie, flickr

Interior Sec. Jewell announced that the National Wildlife Refuge System, recently victimized by the government shutdown, contributes billions annually to regional economies.

Visitors to the National Wildlife Refuge System contributed $2.4 billion to regional economies in 2011, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Nov. 5, underscoring the importance of our public lands and the urgency of their collective budget shortfall.

The announcement, which came from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study released during Jewell’s visit to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, followed months of partisan squabbling that eventually led to a government shutdown and closed refuges and other federal lands for weeks.

Now, as those parks and refuges reopen and rangers return to work, it is important to remember that the most recent crisis was not an isolated event. Wildlife refuges and other public lands have been underfunded for years, many making do amid severe operations and maintenance backlogs. The so-called "sequester" cuts of early 2013 further slashed public land agencies' budgets. The new report drives home the fact that neglecting our country's 561 refuges doesn't only hurt thousands of species of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles--it damages local economic hubs that communities can ill afford to lose.

Check out a photo gallery of animals who call our National Wildlife Refuge System home.

The new report, titled Banking on Nature, found that wildlife refuges return nearly $4.87 in economic output per dollar of investment and employ more than 35,000 people. Total economic activity generated by hiking, hunting, fishing and other recreation activities in refuges in the most recent year for which data were available represented more than a 40 percent increase from an earlier wildlife refuge study, released in 2007.

Many wildlife refuges contain protected wilderness areas

In addition to providing safe haven for wildlife, many refuges overlap with protected wilderness area. More than 20 million acres of the National Wildlife Refuge System are also part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, and some areas, like Arizona's Kofa and Cabeza Prieta refuges, are mostly wilderness.

The Wilderness Society, along with partner organizations, is asking Congress to increase funding to maintain and operate the refuge system. In a joint statement from the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, explained that cutting funding for wildlife refuges is only hurting the people who invested in it:

“Our national wildlife refuges are treasures that protect important wildlife habitat, bolster the economies of local communities, and provide places for Americans to learn about and experience nature in the wild. Continuing to cut critical funding for refuges hurts these iconic lands and waters and those who depend on them while shortchanging the American taxpayer who has invested in building this vibrant National Wildlife Refuge System.” 

Just last week, Jewell invoked our "moral obligation to the next generation" in remarks about the need for strong public lands stewardship. Now would be a perfect time to tell Congress that funding our refuges and other protected areas is part of that obligation.

Our wild lands are still underfunded, and they need your support!