Mr. and Mrs. Smith Have a Message for Washington
Five years ago, an extraordinary thing happened on Capitol Hill – it wasn’t that more than 50 private citizens from across the country, as part of an almost annual pilgrimage orchestrated by the NWRA, visited their Members of Congress asking them to help rescue an ailing Refuge System from severe federal fiscal neglect. No, this event had become almost routine within the refuge Friends community.
Instead, it was that five refuge Friends testified in sequence before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment, conveying unique and compelling stories of hardship from each of their refuges. For the Refuge System, then 104 years in existence, it was a seminal moment. While individual Friends had reached out to Washington decision-makers for many years, this was the first time a group of private citizens had testified together with a unified voice on behalf of the Refuge System. In fact, at least 17 Friends groups submitted written testimony that year to the Subcommittee with a reinforcing message.
When a record $451 million Refuge System budget was reported out of committee for FY08 just a few weeks later, Subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks (D-WA) proclaimed that those who had testified in support of the System had indeed made a compelling case. The Friends’ impact was undeniable and reinforces what the NWRA has said for years: The future of the Refuge System hinges on the engagement and advocacy of local citizens who care about refuges and their role in preserving America’s natural history for future generations.
Since 1998, the NWRA has worked to create a national groundswell of support for refuges, providing more than 5,000 refuge Friends with training in capacity-building, advocacy, and media and communications, and has led more than 1,000 to Capitol Hill. As a result, most Friends understand that speaking up is a vital part of their support for refuges, and 200 groups have joined as NWRA affiliates, thus acknowledging that refuges and wildlife are all better off when refuge Friends work toward a common goal.
Thanks to this esprit de corps, the Refuge System is in far better fiscal condition than it was five years ago. Yet we are faced today with a struggling economy and federal budget cutting fervor that threatens the System’s ability to accomplish its mission. A possible 20% cut to the Refuge System is not out of the realm of possibility as the House of Representatives has already recommended a 10% cut, and should the budget sequestration agreement go into effect, there’s an additional 10% on the table.
So it’s as important as ever that Friends groups – now numbering close to 230 across the country – make their voices heard on both Refuge operations andmaintenance and land conservation funding. Indeed, that’s exactly what Friends Suki Bermudez of Puerto Rico, Jim Nosler and Matthew Jackson of Texas, and Jane Hoffman of Hawaii did just recently. Having come to the Washington area to participate in the Refuge Friends Academy sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in late July, they took advantage of their proximity and took their message to Capitol Hill.
But we’ll need far greater numbers speaking out on behalf of refuges and habitat conservation if we’re going to be successful in sparing refuges the budgetary knife. In the upcoming weeks, Friends and NWRA supporters must reach out to their Congressional leaders while they are on their August recess and tell them what their local refuge means to them and their community.
While the House’s proposed cut to refuges represents a serious threat to the strength of the System, we know from experience and from the compelling voices of Friends who have taken their case to Capitol Hill, that refuge supporters will not stand idly by while their refuges are eviscerated. Because of the remarkable growth of Friends groups in both numbers and effectiveness and their growing commitment to taking their message to Washington, I have great confidence that the future of the National Wildlife Refuge System is in good hands.
Obama Administration Announces New Funding for Northern Everglades
It’s no small feat to establish a 150,000-acre national wildlife refuge and conservation area. But it’s a whole different level of commitment when backed up with $81 million for purchase of conservation easements.
Yet that’s just what happened last month when top conservation officials from the Obama administration announced that they would direct $80 million from the Department of Agriculture’s Wetlands Reserve Program and $1.5 million from the Department of the Interior’s Land and Water Conservation Fund account toward buying easements from private landowners in the recently-established Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, north of Lake Okechobee. Announced by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Rachel Jacobson, these funds could ensure the long-term conservation of up to 25,000 acres.
Going a step further, Jacobson also announced the beginning of a public dialogue and planning process to explore the creation of two additional collaborative conservation areas in the Fisheating Creek watershed, including a network of lands reaching toward the existing Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. As in the Everglades Headwaters region, the new conservation areas would be pursued as public-private partnerships that strike a balance for wildlife, ranching, economic development, water management, and recreation.
For several years the NWRA has worked intensively with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ranchers, sportsmen, state and other federal agencies and departments, and conservation NGOs to advance conservation of the Northern Everglades through such measures as the establishment of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. This announcement takes us an important step closer to achieving our goal.
Read our press release here.
Federal Appropriations Actions Curtailed until 2013
The appropriations process remains broken, with the House and Senate unable to pass funding bills for the next fiscal year (FY13). In order to prevent a government shut down when FY12 ends on September 30th, a bi-partisan agreement has been reached to fund the government at current levels under a continuing resolution until March 2013. The proposed House bill contained a massive $48 million cut to the current National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) funding of $486 million, while the Senate failed to take action on the Department of the Interior appropriations bill, which includes NWRS funding.
If no budgetary action is taken, sequestration is set to become effective January 1st, 2013, with an across the board 9-10% cut to all discretionary spending. Hill insiders believe there may be a small window of opportunity to avert such a devastating cut when the pressure of election year politics takes a backseat during the lame duck Congress. If sequestration occurs, the new 113th Congress has the authority to make further cuts, and the impacts to the NWRS could be staggering. Should the NWRS take a 20% cut, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will need to take the following draconian steps:
- Slash major programs at almost half of the 556 national wildlife refuges.
- Cut 400 wildlife management jobs relating to crucial habitat management work such as invasive species control.
- Terminate all Visitor Services jobs, which will end many opportunities for public access and recreation, and seriously undermine the work of 42,000 volunteers that currently perform about 20% of the work done on refuges.
- Eliminate 80 law enforcement officers, leaving a force of just 164 people to carry out the work that the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends should be done by 845 officers.
When President Theodore Roosevelt sought to protect tiny Pelican Island in Florida, he evaluated the best options on the table and ultimately chose to use his executive authority to create the nation’s first national wildlife refuge in 1903. Since this precedent-setting public land conservation decision, fully 90% of all of our country’s 556 refuges have been established by presidential action, with nearly the same number created by Republican and Democratic administrations.
In fact, every president since Roosevelt has exercised his administrative authority to create at least one refuge, with the largest addition credited to President George W. Bush, who in 2009 decreed a 50-million-acre addition to the System in the West Pacific, protecting some of the most pristine marine habitat in the world.
Disregarding this 109-year-history of broad-based local community support for creating new refuges through administrative action, Representative John Fleming (R-LA) has introduced a misguided bill – H.R. 3009 – that requires that refuges be established solely by Congressional action, thus making it impossible for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to create new refuges administratively. The bill may be voted on by the full House Resources Committee in September.
Should the bill be enacted into law, the ramifications would be enormous – the recently-established Everglades Headwaters NWR and Conservation Area would be nullified and hundreds of private landowners hoping to sell conservation easements would be put on indefinite hold pending refuge boundary expansions. And it would all but halt the strategic growth of the System – something Congress itself mandated in the 1997 Refuge Improvement Act.
Learn more about H.R. 3009 and its ramifications for the Refuge System and take action here.
In early July, Congress passed the 2013 Transportation Bill, which included the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived
Economy of the Gulf Coast Act of 2011 (RESTORE Act)—an extremely important measure for Gulf Coast refuges and wildlife. The act mandates that 80% of the civil penalties from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will be funneled into a Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund, keeping these dollars localized for the long-term restoration of costal habitats damaged by the spill. NWRA is working to ensure that Gulf Coast refuges will benefit from this fund.
Unfortunately, a measure to increase funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to $700 million a year for two years was pulled from the transportation bill. LWCF provides funds for refuge land acquisition and private landowner conservation easements. Friends nationwide, in conjunction with our partners in the LWCF Coalition, played a crucial role in advancing LWCF’s inclusion in the legislation. More information and support for the LWCF measure can be seen in this ‘Statement of Support’ signed by hundreds of national and local conservation organizations.
Izembek Road and Pea Island Bridge Spotlighted in Scarlett/Laverty Op-Ed
Lynn Scarlett, National Wildlife Refuge Association board member and former Deputy Secretary of the Interior, along with Lyle Laverty, former Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, coauthored a July op-ed that ran in Roll Call entitled Protecting Refuges Through Smart Coastal Infrastructure Decision-making. The piece points to the folly of spending scarce federal dollars on major coastal infrastructure projects that are harmful to wildlife refuges as well as unsustainable in the face of sea level rise and the incidence of more severe storms. Read the article here.
Friends Focus: Friends of Balcones Canyonlands
Balcones Canyonlands NWR is nestled in Texas Hill Country, just northwest of Austin. The refuge was created 20 years ago with the mission of protecting two endangered songbirds—the Golden-cheeked warbler and the Black-capped vireo—and their associated habitats. Because both birds are neotropical migrants, it is critical to protect land along the flyway to ensure survivorship throughout the year.
To date, the refuge has acquired just under half of the necessary acreage to protect these songbirds. The acquisition boundary was expanded in 2000 to counter increased development inside the boundary that had resulted in reduced available habitat for both the Golden-checked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. Refuge land is traditionally purchased using the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is funded by a small percent of royalties from offshore oil and gas extraction. But with looming budget troubles, LWCF may see large cuts as these royalty payments are diverted to other uses.
With the help of NWRA, members of the Friends of Balcones Canyonlands NWR are taking matters into their own hands and becoming advocates for the lands they love. Sheila Hargis, FOBC president, flew to Washington, D.C. in September 2011 to show support for LWCF funding. Vice President Jim Nosler participated in a Wildlife Funding Fly-In in March and met with members of Congress and Hill staffers to discuss the importance of funding sources such as LWCF to help create and protect natural areas. The partnership of the NWRA – a national organization – with local advocates creates a powerful voice for the protection of crucial habitat for endangered species.
In late July, Friends from around the country gathered at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV for the fifth annual Friends Academy hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Friends Academy provides Friends leaders with the opportunity to gain a broader understanding of the National Wildlife Refuge System and increase the effectiveness of their partnership with FWS. The 24 Friends leaders in attendance included representatives from all eight FWS regions.
NWRA was present at the training to enhance Friends understanding of the vital role they have in supporting the Refuge System. Delivering the Academy’s openingKeynote, NWRA President Evan Hirsche underscored that refuges are located all over the country, generating jobs and providing economic and quality of life benefits to local communities. More specifically, the National Wildlife Refuge System costs the federal government just $3.24 per acre to manage and returns $32.3 billion in ecosystem services alone. During fiscally tight times, it is important to recognize refuge success and highlight how Friends can influence the budget process.
Because Friends are on the forefront of conservation, they have the power to ensure that our elected officials make the right decisions. Teaming with FWS staff, NWRA’s Vice-President for Government Affairs, Desiree Sorenson-Groves, walked Friends and the participants in FWS Advanced Refuge Academy through the agency’s budget process, explaining what happens to the budget once it reaches the Hill and emphasizing the importance of communicating with Congress throughout the year. NWRA is looking forward to the FY13 spring budget cycle when we will be coordinating with Friends on a “fly-in” to Washington for in-person advocacy. For more information please contact Joan Patterson, NWRA’s Director of Grassroots Outreach: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Refuges are more thanjust a haven for wildlife. The students of Fergus Falls Middle School in Minnesota take weekly trips year round to Fergus Falls Wetland Management District through an environmental education program that would not be possible without the support of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Such programs provide a foundation of environmentalism for the conservationists of tomorrow.
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