Wildlife refuges threatened again, this time with land sell-off focus

Credit: Kristine Sowl (USFWS), flickr.

Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and Massachusetts' Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge are at the center of a renewed assault on wildlife refuges, this time as part of the broader "land takeover" movement.

National wildlife refuges, among America's most accessible—and least appreciated—public lands, are under fire again. 

The House Natural Resources Committee is considering bills that would open up Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for road construction and effectively cut Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in half. Each proposal would represent a shortsighted—yet far-reaching—violation of land that is supposed to be managed on a national scale for the good of future generations.   

“We must not allow America’s most fragile, wild places to be fragmented and degraded -- but that’s exactly what these bills would do,” said Dan Hartinger, deputy director of The Wilderness Society’s parks and public lands defense campaign. “Whether in remote Alaska or off the coast of Cape Code, gutting our refuges would spell disaster for wildlife and sell out the chance for the rest of the nation and future generations to enjoy the natural wonder these refuges were set aside to protect for all time.” 

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge's wilderness is a critical migration destination for numerous bird species. Credit: Kristine Sowl (USFWS), flickr.

National Wildlife Refuges are among the most democratic public lands America has to offer. Many of the 560-odd sites overseen by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lie near cities, providing critical open space for communities that otherwise might never have a chance to connect with nature up-close. And obviously, refuges have been an important tool in the fight against habitat loss and for wildlife conservation. 

But the radical movement to privatize and undermine our shared spaces cares little for these virtues. Backed by special interests, some politicians  are working to enact laws that require Congress to give millions of acres of public lands over to the states. Once in state hands, those lands can be sold without our consent, to oil and gas companies or other private interests.  

The attacks on Izembek and Monomoy are a small window into what happens when American leaders start forgetting that Our Wild public lands belong to everyone—not just a privileged few.  

Road in Izembek wilderness could devastate refuge's heart 

The Izembek attack in particular would set a disastrous precedent by stripping federal wilderness protection in order to build a road for which there are several viable alternatives.  

In 1998, Congress passed a law specifically prohibiting a road through Izembek's wilderness, which is a critical migration destination for numerous bird species. The U.S. Department of the Interior has twice studied and rejected such a project, concluding it would damage the heart of the refuge. Nevertheless, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and others have spent years pushing for it. Buoyed by special interests, this zombie legislation keeps rising from the dead, no matter how many times we knock it down. 

New wrinkle: Pro-conservation congressman plays into extremists' hands 

One of the most distressing elements of these new attacks is that they involve a lawmaker who normally sides with public lands and conservation suddenly championing a plan that is being enthusiastically embraced by the land sell-off fringe.  

Rep. Bill Keating wants to remove the open waters and seabed to the west of Monomoy Island from the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, a legislative proposal the congressman previously called a "last resort." When a bill to start this process was discussed in 2016 a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official warned that it would effectively "remov[e] the assurance these resources will be conserved and managed for wildlife and the American people in perpetuity,” making it a concern not only to her, but to many others within the agency.  

Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, subject of a troubling new bill, is also home to a variety of birds, Credit: Ravin Tomasson (USFWS), flickr.

Just off Cape Cod, Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is one of several protected areas within the larger Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex and represents some of the last remaining wild coastal habitat in New England. The refuge's series of sand dunes, salt marshes and mudflats are home to a variety of seabirds—including three species listed as either "endangered" or "threatened"—as well as hundreds of gray and harbor seals for part of the year.  

Under legislation like that proposed by Rep. Keating, Monomoy's marine ecosystem could be under threat again after years of crafting a balanced conservation plan. Whatever the congressman thinks this bill will accomplish, it could have major consequences. Land takeover extremists in Congress, like Rep. Rob Bishop, support the bill because they see it as an opportunity to advance their broader sell off agenda. 

Land takeover fringe is unrelenting 

Ever since President Theodore Roosevelt created Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in memorable fashion, national wildlife refuges have been an important piece of America's conservation tradition. More than 20 million acres of these incredible landscapes are also part of the National Wilderness Preservation System

But no matter how vital wildlife refuges are to conservation and our national nature experience, some lawmakers just see them as more land to be seized, either commercial commodities or part of a symbolic war against the "federal estate." We must fight the land takeover enterprise wherever it rears its head—whether in Alaska or Massachusetts.