Under Siege: the threat to America's National Wildlife Refuges

This piece appears as part our celebration of National Wildlife Refuge Week

It’s no secret that America’s National Wildlife Refuges are a national treasure.  The 555 Refuges are home to millions of birds, fish, and iconic wildlife species like elk, bighorn sheep, caribou, and grizzly bears.  But these sanctuaries for wildlife and wildness face threats from invasive plants and animals, destruction from hurricanes and other natural disasters, and a multi-billion dollar operations and maintenance backlog. Of these three, only one is directly man-made, and it is unfortunately the most crippling.

Due to budget cuts and chronic under-funding, the National Wildlife Refuge system faces an operations and maintenance backlog of over $3 billion – keeping Refuge staff from maintaining roads, bridges, dams, levees, and other water control structures as well as limiting the number of staff available to keep the Refuges open to the public and provide youth and education programs for the next generation of scientists and biologists.

To make matters worse, 2011 has already been witness to some of the most damaging natural disasters we’ve seen in years. Massive flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers began in 2010 and continues today, while devastating tornadoes and wildfires, hurricanes and tropical storms, and even an earthquake, have wreaked havoc on national wildlife refuges that have been in the direct path of such devastation and have so far seen more than $182 million in damages.

In addition to be providing vital wildlife habitat, National Wildlife Refuges are also major economic drivers for surrounding communities.  Refuges host 45 million visitors each and every year, bringing tourism dollars to the gateway communities and generation more than $1.7 billion for the local economies and creating 27,000 jobs.  Bird-watchers like those from upcoming Hollywood film The Big Year flock to Refuges every spring and fall to see some fine, feathered friends as they migrate to and from wintering grounds.  And Refuges play an integral role in the $76 billion that hunters and anglers inject into the U.S. economy every year.

While the $3 billion backlog might seem too high a price during these times of tight budgets and deficit-cutting, funding National Wildlife Refuges is an investment that pays back in spades.  For every dollar invested in the National Wildlife Refuge System, it is estimated that local communities feel an economic impact of more than $4 – quadrupling the money that is put in.  Unfortunately, the current backlog of threatens this investment moving forward, as a rutted roads, fallen bridges, and breached dams and levees threaten to degrade the wildlife habitat that draws the millions of visitors.

Fortunately, there is hope.  The Wilderness Society, along with a diverse coalition of partners that includes sportsmen’s groups and environmentalists, are pushing Congress to increase funding to maintain and operate America’s National Wildlife Refuges.  These areas are too important – both economically and ecologically - to let slide into disrepair.

To help make your voice heard to defend National Wildlife Refuges and other wild places, please join our WildAlert list.

To learn more about the budgetary threats facing National Wildlife Refuges, please read the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement's 2011 report