On March 14, 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt established a spit of land in the Indian River Lagoon of Florida as the first federal bird reserve. His goal was to protect the egrets, pelicans and other birds that used the island from being slaughtered for their feathers, which were harvested for the fashion industry. This initial designation gave birth to what we now know as our National Wildlife Refuge System.
Today, there are 563 refuges, a testament to our nation’s commitment to the conservation of important habitat for the nation’s fish and wildlife resources. You can find refuges in every state in the union, and they come in every size, shape and location imaginable. For instance, just outside of Philadelphia lies the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, a green oasis nestled within the urban setting of the city. These refuge lands are a thriving sanctuary teeming with a rich diversity of fish, wildlife, and plants native to the Delaware Estuary. The refuge also has a highly successful environmental education program which is heavily used by teachers and school children throughout the region. On the opposite end of the spectrum there is the remote Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, encompassing lands that have changed very little since the days of the historic voyage of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and home to many of the same animals these explorers recorded for the first time in their diaries.
Some refuges play a key role in the recovery and conservation of endangered species. Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida has been part of an effort to bring back a new population of whooping cranes. Hopper Mountain in California has been instrumental in efforts to recover the California condor, and Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect its critically endangered namesake. These are just a few of the refuges that have been instrumental in wildlife recovery efforts across the country.
Refuges are not only important to the protection of habitat for our nation’s wildlife; they are also an economic boon for local communities, attracting tourists who spend money at local businesses. A Banking on Nature study found that nearly 35 million people visit national wildlife refuges a year, supporting almost 27,000 private sector jobs and producing about $543 million in employment income. In addition, recreational spending on refuges generated nearly $185.3 million in tax revenue at the local, county, state and federal level.
But today, there is an alarming movement afoot that is taking aim at our nation’s refuges and other federal public lands. It’s most extreme members are represented by the anti-government militants that took over Malheur National Wildlife Refuge a month ago. These extremists dismiss the environmental and recreational benefits of our federal lands to the American people. Their goal is to dismantle America’s federal public lands, which benefit all of our citizens, and transfer ownership to the states or local governments for dramatically expanded private economic use. Since most state and local governments lack the financial resources to manage these federal lands, eventually much of it would be sold off to corporations and wealthy individuals, shutting down access to the rest of the American public.
These militants are clinging to an economic vision of the west that passed them by long ago. Locked in a time warp from the early 1900’s, they still view our public lands as ATM machines for unsustainable economic uses and exploitation. Fortunately, Congress and the American public abandoned that mindset and developed a broader vision for our public lands, giving greater weight to the environmental and recreational benefits they provide.
While the public at large strongly supports our national network of federal conservation lands, we can expect this militant minority to continue their assault on this legacy, and for some anti-environmental members of Congress to pick up the cause as their own. This is the time when we must all find our voice and rally around the continued protection of America’s public lands. We need to make sure our elected officials understand how important these lands are to our way of life, that they are the most treasured places in our country, and that it would be unconscionable to consider disposing of these lands to militants and special economic interests that are only serving their own self-interests. America’s lands belong to all of America’s people. Let’s keep it that way.