Wildlife refuges under attack: 3 examples of recent onslaught

Fox in Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which some members of Congress have repeatedly proposed as site of a new road.

Credit: Kristine Sowl (USFWS), flickr.

Anti-conservation members of Congress are determined to undermine national wildlife refuges, as evidenced by a renewed push to build a road through key habitat in Alaska.

National wildlife refuges are some of our most accessible public lands, and some of the least appreciated. Many of the National Wildlife Refuge System's 560-odd refuges—including refuges in every state--lie near cities, offering communities that might never have a chance to visit the big western national parks (especially kids) the chance to connect with nature up-close.

Refuges are a big shot in the arm for the economy too. According to a report by a coalition of conservation, outdoor recreation and scientific groups, 47 million people visited national wildlife refuges in 2014, the last year for which statistics are available, supporting about 35,000 jobs and generating $2.4 billion for local communities.

And let's not forget the fundamental purpose of these places. Ever since President Theodore Roosevelt created Florida’s Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in memorable fashion, national wildlife refuges have been an important tool in the fight against habitat loss and for wildlife conservation. More than 20 million acres of these incredible landscapes are also part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, too.

Public land takeover movement targets refuges

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."

The public land takeover fringe that exploded into prominence during the armed standoff at Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has, perhaps unsurprisingly, trained its sights on other refuges in the months since then. These three have recently fallen under attack in Congress:

1. Vieques National Wildlife Refuge (Puerto Rico)

This spring, legislation intended to bring debt relief to Puerto Rico was tainted with a provision that would have given away 3,100 acres of Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, potentially leading to commercial development in an undisputed gem of the Caribbean. The culprits? You guessed it—the same cadre of lawmakers who have been getting more and more brazen in the last couple of years in their attempts to seize and privatize cherished public lands. After people like you told Congress this was unacceptable, they stripped the disastrous land giveaway language from the bill. But this episode emphasized how high the stakes are: the proposal could have "set a harmful national precedent by potentially privatizing public conservation lands," per the Hispanic Federation and other groups.

Credit: Edwin Soto.

2. Desert National Wildlife Refuge (Nevada)

For several years, Congress has tried to hide a disturbing proposal in the annual defense authorization bill, a "must-pass" piece of legislation. The plan would split Desert National Wildlife Refuge, a home to bighorn sheep, and give half of it over to the U.S. Air Force, stripping partial jurisdiction over those areas from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and opening it up to military training activities that could include aerial bombing. This scheme resurfaced in 2016, despite the fact that the Air Force never requested the transfer—and the Department of Defense has rebuffed the proposal.

Credit: Andrew, flickr.

3. Izembek National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska)

In 1998, Congress passed a law specifically prohibiting a road through designated wilderness in the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which is a critical migration destination for numerous species of birds. This hasn't prevented Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and others from pushing the Department of the Interior to build a road through the land anyway. Most recently, the Senate Interior Appropriations bill included just such a proposal, despite the fact that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected the idea in 2013 and the U.S. District Court subsequently upheld that decision.

Credit: Kristine Sowl (USFWS), flickr.

More on Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and why we must protect it

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