Conservation is focus of new wildlife refuge act


October 12, 1997|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Last week President Clinton signed the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, formally establishing fish, wildlife and plant conservation as the mission of the world's largest network of protected lands and waters dedicated to wildlife.

According to Department of Interior officials, the new law also gives priority to certain wildlife-dependent recreational uses of national wildlife refuges.

There are more than 500 wildlife refuges in the United States encompassing more than 92 million acres. Visits to the refuges now number nearly 30 million per year.

"This legislation marks a milestone in the National Wildlife Refuge System's history by making wildlife conservation its overarching mission and ensuring sportsmen, birdwatchers and other wildlife enthusiasts ample opportunities to enjoy this magnificent collection of wild lands," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

The key provisions of the act are:

The refuge system will be administered for "conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans."

Defining compatible wildlife dependent recreation as "legitimate and appropriate general public use of the System."

Establishes hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography and environmental education and interpretation as "priority public uses" where compatible with the mission and purpose of individual refuges.

Maintains refuge managers' authority to use professional judgment to determine compatible public uses and decide whether they will be allowed and establishes a formal process for determining "compatible use."

Requires public involvement in decisions to allow new uses and renew existing ones as well as in the development of "comprehensive conservation plans." Refuges that do not have such plans are required to develop them.

"This is truly historic conservation legislation," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge system. "The USFWS now has a clear, unifying law to help ensure a vibrant National Wildlife Refuge system."

The act signed by President Clinton on Thursday is the result of bipartisan support in Congress and developmental assistance from the National Audubon Society, Wildlife Management Institute, Wildlife Legislative Fund of America and the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Primary congressional sponsors were Don Young (R, Ark.) and John Dingell (D, Mich.).

The act is seen as a springboard from which the refuge system can develop as it enters its second century of existence.

The refuge system was started by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, when the noted sportsman issued an executive order establishing Pelican Island in Florida as the first national wildlife refuge.

From that three-acre parcel, a tract set aside because of Roosevelt's concern over widespread killing of birds so their feathers could be used in fashionable clothing of the period, the network of more than 92 million acres has grown.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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