Patuxent refuge to cut hours, activities

Rising costs strain budget, manager says

December 18, 2005|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Patuxent Research Refuge, long a popular and free destination for Scout troops, school trips and family outings, is cutting back its hours and activities because of budget constraints.

"We have reduced the number of programs we offer here," said Brad Knudsen, manager of the 12,750-acre federal research refuge since 2001.

The Scout workshops, which always fill up within minutes of opening for registration, will be cut to six in 2006, from more than twice that number in previous years. Activities such as the annual International Migratory Bird Day in May have been scaled back, and the visitor center and grounds will close an hour earlier, at 4:30 p.m. instead of 5:30 p.m., at least through March 1, when the previous hours are expected to resume.

The shorter schedule means that staffers at the refuge, just beyond the Howard County line and straddling Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, can work an eight-hour day with no overlapping and shuffling of schedules, Knudsen said.

The refuge, established in 1936, has walking trails, several lakes and ponds, and a National Wildlife Visitor Center with interpretive exhibits that teach about habitats, endangered animals and other ecological topics.

The refuge also houses the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, which employs about 150 people, mostly involved in biological research related to conservation of animals and land. One of its most noted programs is the preservation of endangered whooping cranes through a captive breeding and release program.

The research center has a separate budget, Knudsen said, but relies on the refuge staffers to maintain the property.

"What the refuge does on a day-to-day basis is to take care of the land and facilities," he said. "We're the custodians."

That means the refuge budget has to cover costs ranging from heating the buildings to removing snow in the winter, he said.

Knudsen could not give specifics on the refuge's 2006 budget, saying that the money for the refuge, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of the Interior, comes from a variety of sources, is earmarked in a variety of ways and is not final.

"Fuel, electricity and employees are not getting any less expensive," he said. "It's gotten more challenging in recent years."

John Stasko, supervisor for refuges in six states, including Patuxent in Maryland, said the financial squeeze is being felt throughout the system.

"What has happened over the past couple of years at all our refuges over the Northeast is managers have realized they can't do as much as they like," said Stasko, who is based in Massachusetts. "We've had to ask them to prioritize their work, to figure out what things they could cut back on."

Stasko says growing expenses have fueled the cutbacks. "It looks to the public like we're reducing service to the public, and in fact if you look at it in a pure sense, we are," he said. "But it's just a matter of being able to pay the bills. ... When you have expenses rising ... then you have to look at ways to reduce your programming. We talk about doing less with less quite a bit."

At Patuxent, that means less staff, which translates into fewer hours, Knudsen said. He noted that three employees have left the refuge since April, leaving 20, and the three won't be replaced.

"We're trying to control costs, and one of the biggest costs is salary," he said. "The people we lost are basically front-line people, the visitor center people."

The refuge also relies on a network of about 300 volunteers, he said, but scheduling volunteers is trickier than scheduling staffers, and volunteers can't be expected to do everything.

"We use them but we can't abuse them," he said.

The refuge charges no fees for guided tours and organized activities. Even fishing permits are free. The only costs are for a tram ride with a guide and for hunting permits.

The center also provides meeting rooms free to groups such as a gathering of Prince George's County teachers who met there Wednesday.

Instead of imposing a charge, the center will start requesting donations, said Nell Baldacchino, a wildlife biologist at the refuge who specializes in education and outreach.

School programs also are free. Knudsen noted that teacher workshops, offered several times a year, are a valuable way to increase school participation because teachers trained in the workshop are then equipped to bring their students to the center and teach them without guidance from the refuge staff.

Among the most popular activities are the Scout programs, which allow Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts to earn badges through all-day activities that teach them about tree identification, migration and other aspects of nature. About 60 Scouts at a time participate, said Jennifer Hill, an interpretation specialist who typically runs the program along with two other people.

"We just had no choice," said Baldacchino. "We just can't do quite as many as we used to. They are very labor-intensive."

Hill said some Scout leaders have protested the changed schedule. "I think they understand, but not all of them do," she said. "They definitely want us to do as many as we did before."

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