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The Refuge System

May 16, 1995 — US House of Representatives, Washington DC


Thank you, Mr. Chairman. My staff, who have a better flair for showmanship, and I must say a lower threshold for the corny than I, have insisted that I bring along this likeness of Theodore Roosevelt to remind us of who started the refuge system, when and for what purpose. It was my staffs hope that in carting this up here, that the watchful eye of Roosevelt would help us to keep focused on the purity of his original vision, which I would abstract from a 1915 quotation of his. He said it was keeping for our children’s children as a priceless heritage all of the delicate beauty of the lesser and the burly majesty of the mightier forms of wild- life. A reflection, he said, of a new understanding that wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people who are alive today, but the property of unborn generations whose belongings we have no right to squander.

I believe that nothing we do in the 104th Congress or in the policies of the National Wildlife Refuge System should detract from or add complexity to that supreme vision. On the other hand, the challenge of resource management in 1903 was a great deal simpler than it is in 1995.

As the Service wends its way through preliminary project proposals, appraisals, public hearings and Congressional appropriations, I have always noted with envy that Pelican Island, the first refuge, was created in 1903 with a stroke of Teddy Roosevelt’s pen. Teddy Roosevelt visited Breton Island, Louisiana, one day in 1904, and it was a national wildlife refuge the next day. Both of these original refuges were for the purposes of protecting seabirds from the depredations of uncontrolled hunting. The president turned them into sanctuaries.

A century later we have over 500 refuges, about 92 million acres. Those who know no more than the early roots of the refuge system believe that they are sanctuaries and are surprised, to say the least, to find that the refuges are open to a variety of recreational activities, including hunting and fishing. Those who do not know much about the refuge system seem not to distinguish between them and the other big Federal land systems, especially the national parks and forests, and are surprised to find out that the refuges have a far more specialized approach to public recreation than do other acres of Federal land. This second interpretation is reinforced by the simple fact of the growing pressure on public land on any open space for all of society’s natural resources needs, from recreation to agriculture to resource extraction.

At this hearing you have heard and will hear about many of these pressures which are intensifying on the wildlife refuges as both open space for human recreational and economic activity and undisturbed habitat for wildlife conservation both become increasingly rare commodities. In other words, it sometimes seems as if we have two schools of thought on the refuge system, first, they are lands where people can’t do anything and second, they are lands where people should be able to do anything. All of us are trying to find a middle way, and I believe this is the problem that, at its essence, we have been trying to solve for the last two years in working toward organic legislation for the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The question we have to answer is this, I believe, given that we now know that all uses of refuges cannot and need not be excluded, by what standard should we choose. I do not believe we can answer this question without a guiding principle, and I believe that the guiding principle must be Theodore Roosevelt’s. That is contributing to the keeping for our children’s children all the lesser and greater forms of wildlife, especially those assigned to Federal jurisdiction. Those are migratory birds, anadromous and inter-jurisdictional fish species and marine mammals. I agree that this principle must be translated into clear and detailed guidance for the refuge manager.

Clearly, for us to be able to wisely administer the refuge system, this purpose must be supreme above all others and all proposed uses of the system must be judged against it. When, and only when, any use is contributory to its fulfillment should it be allowed and encouraged. In general, if uses of refuges are confused with and given equal status with this primary principle, we will have severely compromised its integrity. Uses of refuges that encourage the public’s enjoyment of wildlife like fishing, bird watching and hunting are essential and should be given the highest, if not exclusive, priority in our administration of activities on the refuges. But to give them identical status with the supreme purpose of the refuge system, that is the conservation of wildlife, is to confuse means, that is hunting, fishing and other forms of wildlife enjoyment, and ends, that is conservation, and to leave us without the proper guidance for deciding what public uses are compatible with what specific refuges and wildlife.

Mr. Chairman, I am very grateful to the committee and especially to you personally for working with us on this issue. I am hopeful that our combined efforts to craft appropriate organic legislation will make it possible to achieve this vision. In my formal testimony I have addressed four elements which I believe should be embodied in legislation, a clear mission and purpose, well defined affirmative responsibilities of the Secretary to preserve integrity of the system, legislative direction relating to the management of permitted uses and guidance on the development of refuge planning documents.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.



Source: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans of the Committee on Resources, House of Representatives, One Hundred Fourth Congress, First Session., (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office), 1995, pp. 143-144.