The August Recess is upon us. Congress has left Capitol Hill, with very little to write home about. Lawmakers managed to pass an extension to the Transportation bill before funding ran out for construction projects nationwide. We’ve been watching this bill closely as some key refuge transportation programs are funded from it. The Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee also released its draft FY15 Interior Appropriations bill; however, like its companion in the House, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
But the lack of action by Congress has not stopped the Refuge Association from pushing for more.
In this month’s Flyer, you’ll read about Martin Cornell, a member of Friends of Brazoria Wildlife Refuges, who came to Washington to testify against the Refuge Expansion Limitation Act. The intent of the Act is to allow expansion of refuge boundaries only by an act of Congress. However, Mr. Cornell asked the important question: what is the definition of expansion? Thanks to his attention to detail, we were able to flag problematic language in the bill early in the legislative process.
Summer is also a great time to explore the Refuge System, and that’s just what our team has been doing from coast to coast. You’ll read about Cape Meares National Wildlife Refuge on the Oregon coast, a stunning combination of prime seabird habitat and old-growth forest. And along the East Coast, you’ll read about the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, which spans four states and more than 400 miles of wildlife habitat along the heavily-populated Connecticut River Watershed.
Summer always seems to fly by, and some of you may already be witnessing the beginning of Fall migration. Let us know what you’re seeing by posting on our Facebook wall or Tweeting it to us @wildrefuge.
But most important, get out and enjoy your local wildlife refuge while the days are still longer than the nights.
ON THE REFUGE
Cape Meares: Seabird Haven and Tourist Magnet
Where can you go to see three national wildlife refuges from one spot, stand next to Oregon’s largest Sitka spruce and visit the state’s shortest lighthouse? Cape Meares National Wildlife Refuge on Oregon’s Pacific Coast offers all this and more.
Located on Three Capes Scenic Route west of Tillamook along Oregon’s north coast, this Refuge is a bit unique in that it shares this special spot with the Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint, which includes an iconic lighthouse that draws visitors from all over.
A map of the Refuge shows how this unique state-federal partnership works: the state owns and manages the headlands along Cape Meares, as well as the Cape Meares Lighthouse, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns and manages the old-growth forest and cliffs on either side, as well as the islands above high tide. Access to the Refuge goes through state land: visitors park on state property, but hike trails on Refuge property. Read more...
The two agencies work together to protect the natural and cultural resources at Cape Meares, and also offer visitors excellent opportunities to view seabirds, raptors and songbirds, as well as whales, sea lions and other marine life.
On a clear day, standing on one of Cape Meares’ two interpretive platforms overlooking the Pacific Ocean you can see Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge and Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
“This is the only place I know of where you can see three national wildlife refuges at one time,” said Roy Lowe, project leader for the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
From the platform, you can also see a pair of resident peregrine falcons nesting on the cliffs of the Refuge. Longtime volunteer and legend Harold “Bus” Engsberg has been observing the resident birds since the 1980s, documenting their breeding and nesting habits. Lowe noted that this citizen scientist has provided important data to the Refuge that is helping inform the management of this once-endangered species.
Cape Meares is not a large refuge. But its 139 acres are packed with abundant wildlife, as well as one of the last tracts of old-growth forest left on the coast of Oregon. If you spend time here, you’re sure to see common murres, bald eagles, and warblers, not to mention gray and humpback whales and even the occasional Roosevelt elk
One of the main attractions at Cape Meares is its Lighthouse, built in 1889, with the shortest light tower (38 feet) on the Oregon coast.
Friends of Cape Meares Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge manages a gift shop and tours of the lighthouse. The group formed in 1991 to protect the historic lighthouse, and later broadened its mission to include protecting the wildlife resources found here.
The new friends policy announced in April poses a challenge to this and other groups along the Oregon coast, since they have official partnerships with multiple government agencies. State and federal agencies share the natural resources at Cape Meares, and thus the Friends group has formal partnership agreements with both agencies.
Dawn Harris, visitor services manager for the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said they are reviewing the policy and considering options for how to retain a strong partnership.
“No matter which direction we go, we’ll continue to be great partners,” she said.
Another highlight at Cape Meares is a visit to the largest Sitka spruce in the state of Oregon. The tree, about 800-years-old and 48 feet in circumference, is a sight to behold: tucked within one of the last-remaining stands of old growth forest on the Oregon coast, the tree is simply massive. Despite having snapped off at the top, it still stands 144 feet high with a crown spread of 93 feet.
The tree is only a short hike from the Refuge entrance through a stand of old-growth forest: Sitka spruce, western hemlock and other massive trees are teeming with warblers, wrens and thrushes chattering throughout the canopy.
Cape Meares is open year-round, but harsh weather is not uncommon, as evidenced this summer by a section of trees blown down by a winter storm, and a nearby road blocked by a recent flood and mudslide. But pack a fleece and rain gear, some binoculars and a camera, and you’re in for a treat no matter when you visit.
THE REFUGE ASSOCIATION IN ACTION
The National Wildlife Refuge Association’s new Director of Conservation Programs, Jared Brandwein, recently made his way around the northeast visiting the 1,000 Acre Forest in Connecticut, and various portions of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge with Refuge Manager Andy French to learn more about the unique challenges facing the Service’s Northeast Region (Region 5) and how the Refuge Association can help.
1,000 Acre Forest
The first stop was to the 1,000 Acre Forest in Connecticut where a diverse group of agencies are working together to protect this vital piece of land. Local residents know it fondly as “The Preserve,” which plays an important role in maintaining water quality in Trout Brook and the Oyster and Mud rivers. These rivers feed into the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound. The Trust for Public Land is working with the Town of Old Saybrook, the Essex Land Trust, the State of Connecticut, and conservationists to raise the funds needed to purchase this important coastal forest. Read more...
Fort River Division, MA
The next stop was the Fort River division of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts, to see the 1.2 mile long birding and nature trail that is slated to open during National Wildlife Refuge Week in October. Volunteers, local partners, and Refuge staff have been working to get this opened since April of 2013. The trail was designed to address the needs of local residents and attract more visitors. Refuge staff will be starting restoration projects soon, so the trail will be the perfect place for education about the project. The trail weaves in and out of different habitats making it ideal for interpretation and education purposes.
New Hampshire and Vermont
Next up was the West River in Vermont and the Ashuelot River in New Hampshire, both part of the larger Connecticut River watershed. The Connecticut River is the largest river in New England; the watershed spans over four hundred miles as it drops down to sea level from the highest elevation in New England. Brandwein and French discussed the Refuge’s strategy to promote connectivity in area, and ways to strategically integrate and connect Refuge land with an existing 1.8 million acres of protected land within the watershed.
Springfield Science Museum and Fannie Stebbins
Brandwein also met with Scott Kahan (Regional Chief of Refuges for Region 5) and Graham Taylor (Refuge Supervisor), and toured the Springfield Science Museum with director David Stier. The museum’s “Conte Corner” featured an exhibit about the Refuge. Displayed prominently at the museum, the exhibit introduces visitors to the Refuge System and Conte in particular.
Brandwein also visited the Fannie Stebbins Unit of the Refuge. Both the “Conte Corner” and the Fannie Stebbins Unit are key components of the Refuge’s evolving Springfield, MA, “Urban Refuge” initiative.
Connecticut Yankee and Salmon River Watershed
After touring the decommissioned Connecticut Yankee power plant and the immediately adjacent refuge land, the group met with Shelley Green of The Nature Conservancy and other local partners to discuss land protection strategies. The Friends of the Salmon River were also in attendance and expressed their full support of the Refuge acquiring more land through easements and fee title.
Stuart B. McKinney NWR and Outer Island
The final leg of the trip included a visit to the Stuart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge where Brandwein met with Refuge Manager Rick Potvin, Park Ranger Shaun Roche, Biologist Kris Vagos, and Captain Sean Healy. The group traveled to Falkner Island, a place Brandwein knows well from his time as deputy manager at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge (1988-1990) which at that time managed the Connecticut refuges. The Refuge has hired interns to assist with studies and habitat improvement projects to learn more about the tern species that reside on the Island. Severe storm damage has impacted the distribution of the terns, so the Refuge is working to promote better distribution of the species through restoration projects.
On a side tour of Outer Island, another unit of the McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, the group visited an environmental education facility run by the Friends of Outer Island. President Bill Anthony provided a tour and overview of programs that include bringing students from nearby cities out to the island to experience nature there.
In a rush to adjourn for the August recess, Congress made a mad – if not very productive – dash for the door. Lawmakers managed to pass an extension to the Transportation bill before funding ran out for construction projects nationwide, and the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee released its draft bill for Fiscal Year 2015.
Hopes were high that Congress would pass a new bi-partisan Transportation Bill, but that hope was dashed when lawmakers passed an extension bill funding programs at current levels until May 2015. Funding will remain at its current level during this time and projects will continue as planned. The Refuge Association will continue to urge Congress to pass a new Transportation bill that includes $100 million annually for the Refuge System’s roads and infrastructure needs. Read more...
The Senate Interior Appropriations bill was released and, like its counterpart in the House, is a mixed bag. However, the two chambers seem to have very different priorities. For instance, while the House bill would fund the Refuge System’s Operations and Maintenance at the level requested by the President and the Refuge Association, the Senate’s version falls short of that amount by $1 million. But while the House version barely funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Senate included the President’s requested level – with funding for important refuge projects such as the Everglades Headwaters NWR, Conte NFWR, and Cache NWR.
When Congress returns to Washington in early September, lawmakers will have only twelve legislative days to complete any work before leaving to campaign for the November elections. We expect lawmakers to pass a Continuing Resolution or “CR” funding the government at current levels until either the “Lame Duck” session, or perhaps even into early 2015 so the government does not shut down on October 1st as it did last year.
REFUGE FRIENDS CONNECT
In late July, Martin Cornell, a member of the Friends of Brazoria Wildlife Refuges in Texas, came to Washington to testify before the House Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs on a bill that would remove the authority from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand wildlife refuges.
The National Wildlife Refuge Expansion Limitation Act (H.R. 3409) would amend the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 to require that any expansion of a national wildlife refuge must be expressly authorized by statute. The intent of the bill is to halt and prevent any expansion of existing refuge acquisition boundaries without a law passed by Congress.
No refuge would be able to add any new lands without a Congressional statute. Read more...
Cornell, a retired DOW Chemical scientist, had read the bill closely, and discovered that the bill would prohibit any new land going into the Refuge System – even within existing refuge boundaries and those acquired through a donation, Duck Stamp funds, or Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars.
Cornell testified against the refuge expansion bill, noting the problematic language and using an example from his local refuge to describe how the bill as written would create problems for local communities.
How Would This Bill Change Things?
When the Service proposes an expansion of a refuge acquisition boundary, a transparent and rigorous public process happens in which the local community is engaged. Refuge staff conduct forums, visits, meetings, and open houses to ensure the public has a say in what occurs. Typically, if there is strong opposition, the expansion will not proceed. This has proved to be quite successful due to the heavy involvement of the local communities. If this bill passes, the process would be removed from the local level and brought up to Washington, D.C., slowing the process down, and also removing the local input. Considering the speed at which Congress operates these days, it would in effect halt all boundary expansions.
This Bill Would Hurt Refuges
In addition, the bill is retroactive which would hurt refuges like the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge in the Texas Mid-coast Refuge Complex where Cornell is from. Brazoria County, TX, where the refuge is located, is home to a old-growth bottomwood forest which hosts over 29 million individual birds annually. Due to urban development, the Friends, other partners of the refuges, and Refuge staff came to the conclusion that more land was needed to protect this vast population of birds, and efforts were made to purchase new land.
In his testimony, Mr. Cornell stated, “One recent example is the 338-acre tract of bottomlands forest, appraised at one point eight million dollars, donated by The Dow Chemical Company, our county’s largest employer. Today, this Dow Woods Unit of the San Bernard NWR is an “urban refuge” that welcomed over 4,500 visitors last year. If H.R. 3409 is enacted, additions like Dow Woods would require a time-consuming, cumbersome, and likely deal-killing act of Congress.“ Click here for Mr. Cornell’s full testimony.
Thanks to Cornell’s close attention to the details of how this bill was written, he was able to point out a major problem and bring it to the attention of the subcommittee.
The Refuge Association and others remain adamantly opposed to the bill, as it would insert Congress into a process that currently relies on community input.
MORE HEADLINES FROM THIS MONTH
GETTING TO KNOW DAWN HARRIS
Visitor Services Manager
Cape Meares NWR is best known for: peregrine falcons, which have been documented nesting in the cliffs at the Refuge since the 1980s.
The Refuge’s best-kept secret is: Big Spruce, Oregon’s largest Sitka spruce, standing 144 feet tall and 48 feet in circumference. Big Spruce can be found at the end of a short hike along a stretch of old-growth forest on the Refuge.
The most interesting species on the Refuge is: That’s a tough one; there are so many to choose from! I’d say the black oystercatcher. This small black seabird with its long, red bill is very fun to watch as it skulks along in the rocky intertidal searching for a mussel to pry open and eat.
Favorite activity on the Refuge is: Birding, for sure. Even if you’re not an avid birder, watching birds at Cape Meares is a lot of fun because these are birds you do not see in your backyard every day. And don’t forget to scan the ocean for whales.
The best time to visit the Refuge is: Summer brings the best weather for visiting, and it’s a great time to see birds, whales, and even watch storms coming in.
We need your help!
Does your Refuge or Friends group partner with an outside group such as branches of the military, Native American tribes, other nonprofits, etc? We want to hear about it! Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story.
Friends, are you connected?
RefugeFriendsConnect.org is a membership site that is managed by NWRA and a group of volunteers. If you are a Friends group member or are refuge staff working with Friends you are welcome to join.
Keep an eye out for these upcoming events:
August 14: The Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE) presents Sen. Jack Reed with its 2014 Conservation Award.
September 1: Labor Day
September 3: 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act
September 8: Congress returns to session
The National Wildlife Refuge Association is on the cutting edge of wildlife habitat conservation and citizen engagement in the United States. But we need your help to advance our work protecting large landscapes, educating decision-makers in Washington, and mobilizing refuge Friends in support of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Please make a generous donation today!
Flyer Masthead Photo Credit: Kestrel, Wade Dowdy