In 1995, the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE) was formed. This coalition, now consisting of 22 major conservation, recreation, scientific, and wildlife organizations representing over 14 million members and supporters, banded together around a common cause. Wildlife conservation required a stronger Refuge System and the Refuge System needed more funding and staff for its operations and maintenance.
As interest in the Refuge System grew, many in Congress felt that the Refuge System needed stronger statutory authority and guidance. In the early and mid-1990s, “organic legislation” for the Refuge System was proposed, but no consensus could be reached. In 1996, an Executive Order was issued by the President spelling out a wildlife conservation mission for the Refuge System and tenets for its management and general public uses.
In 1997, a bipartisan effort was initiated to provide the statutory guidance needed to strengthen the administration of the Refuge System. From these efforts emerged the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, which was overwhelmingly passed by the Congress and signed into law on October 9, 1997. The Refuge System Improvement Act spelled out the mission of the Refuge System:
“The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.”
This far-reaching law required comprehensive conservation planning for each refuge and set standards to assure that all uses of refuges were compatible with the wildlife conservation mission. It also required that we conserve the biological diversity, integrity, and environmental health of refuges, and that we consider the conservation of the ecosystems of the United States in planning the growth of the Refuge System.
The Refuge System Improvement Act also recognized that compatible wildlife-dependent recreation is a legitimate and appropriate general public use of the System, directly related to the mission of the System and the purposes of many refuges, and that recreation generally fosters refuge management and helps the American public develop an overall appreciation for fish and wildlife.
The passage of the landmark National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act in 1997 set the stage for a more strategic approach to managing the Refuge System. In October 1998, for the first time in the 95-year history the Refuge System, the Service convened all of the managers of the Refuge System in a historic gathering at Keystone, Colorado. The goal was to craft a strategic vision for the Refuge System that would meet the challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century.
A strategic plan was launched, embedded in a document entitled Fulfilling the Promise. The work that followed on the refuges helped the Refuge System and its supporters to set the stage to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the occasion of the Centennial anniversary of the Refuge System in 2003. In May 2004, there was convened a group of staff and supporters (many of whom came from the groups around CARE) to develop a shared set of priorities at a “Conservation in Action” summit.
Based on the direction provided by the Refuge System’s Improvement Act, the Summit arrived at a list of priorities, each with a corresponding measure of importance. There were 109 priorities articulated at that important conference, including such things as wilderness management and wildlife inventorying. But the Refuge System cannot do everything.
The funds are lacking, the backlog continues, the need for a CARE coalition continues.
The funds and the CARE record:
When CARE started (1996), the refuge system operations and maintenance budget was $170 million; today it is nearly $434 million. This is a great accomplishment. Still, the operations and maintenance backlog remains daunting. (Today it is $3.5 billion.)
Over the years, the alliance has reviewed the operations, maintenance, and accounting procedures used by the Refuge System and created a report in 2001 entitled, Restoring America’s Wildlife Legacy: A Plan to Restore Our National Wildlife Refuge System. This report identified a need for substantial increases in Refuge System operations and maintenance funding. You can access a pdf of that report here.
This report was followed soon thereafter by an additional study from CARE, entitled Shortchanging America’s Wildlife which highlighted the plight of refuges in a dozen cases. The Shortchanging document emphasized such issues as inadequate funding to address the onslaught of invasive plants, the management and recovery of threatened and endangered species, water-quality monitoring issues, maintaining sufficient water, the decline of building structures, inadequate environmental interpretation, and law enforcement needs. You can access a pdf of that report here.
In addition, and to monitor the use of funds appropriated to satisfy refuge operations and maintenance needs, CARE has tracked expenditures from three funding accounts: refuge operations budget, refuge maintenance budget, and the Transportation Equity Act. The alliance has done this through its accountability reports, released about 18 months after the annual funds are spent on refuges. You can access a pdf of the FY 2002 CARE Accountability Report here.
CARE regularly sends letter to Congress and submits written testimony to the Appropriations Committee, urging increased appropriations to address the Refuge Systems’ needs and its backlog.
At the same time that the general operations and maintenance backlog for the Refuge System has reached $2.7 billion, transportation needs for the Refuge System grow. The Federal Highway Administration and the Department of the Interior inventory and condition assessment show a backlog of needs of $2.1 billion to address the transportation infrastructure of the Refuge System.
In the last half-dozen years, over $94 million worth of transportation improvements were made on Refuges. The improvements increased access for the local public and tourists, increasing recreational opportunities for anglers, bird-watchers, hunters, and many other people who enjoy wildlife. The funds used to pay for improvements to refuge roads and parking lots also help provide jobs to local contractors in the states where the improvements are being made.
Unfortunately, the $17-20 million annually that the Refuge System currently receives for roads, bridges, and parking lots is insufficient.
Instead, CARE has supported transportation expenditures justified by a 2002 letter from the Department of Interior to the Department of Transportation for a funding level of $69 million per year to address the $2.1 billion backlog over 30 years.