The communities around these five National Wildlife Refuges won’t let their public lands fall into disrepair—they’re stepping up to make conservation happen
The National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) spans more than 150 million acres in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and with 337 refuges open to hunting and 276 boasting great fishing opportunities, these federal lands are a piece of our nation’s unique and complex public lands system. Despite the value of our public lands, gifted to future generations by people like Theodore Roosevelt and celebrated by sportsmen and Americans of every stripe, the agencies that work to maintain and restore habitat in parks, forests, and refuges have been systematically underfunded by Congress, fueling discontent with federal land managers.
However, when I recently visited five refuges in the Midwest with the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE) Coalition, I saw collaborative attempts to close the gap created by lack of funds. Local communities weren’t resentful of the backlogs or shortfalls—they were stepping up to help.
These partnerships illustrate the power of public lands to bring people together, and the resulting enhancements are providing habitat connectivity between private and public lands and improved outdoor recreation opportunities that help drive local spending.
Here’s what cool, collaborative conservation looks like:
Prairie meets pavement. One of our nation’s newest refuges, the Hackmatack NWR in Ringwood, Illinois is in the process of conserving and connecting critical wetland, prairie, and oak savanna habitat in the greater Chicago, Rockford, and Milwaukee metropolitan areas. This refuge is mainly funded by the Friends of Hackmatack and partners, like the local Audubon and Ducks Unlimited chapters, and without this financial aid the refuge staff would not be able to conserve habitat for 109 species in the area. Friends of Hackmatack and on-the-ground nonprofits coordinate on restoration projects that enhance monarch butterflies and other pollinators’ habitat, too.
Private landowners, partners, and public dollars unite. Once the site of Aldo Leopold’s vacation home, the Leopold Wetlands Management District in Portage, Wisconsin honors the father of wildlife management by safeguarding 12,000 acres of Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs). The WPAs are areas where habitat is restored using funds from the sale of the Federal Duck Stamp to restore critical wetland and grassland habitat for migratory birds. The community plays a supportive role in maintaining and conserving these lands, as well. With help from the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, private landowners can receive financial and technical assistance to improve waterfowl habitat on their own land adjacent to the refuge. Traveling with the CARE Coalition, I was fortunate enough to be welcomed by landowners Dave and Shelly, who showed us habitat improvements on their hundreds of acres of property. They explained how the Leopold Wetlands Management District’s fire management team schedules controlled burns to restore lupine vegetation for Karner blue butterflies, an endangered pollinator species, and to provide cover for upland game birds, such as pheasant.
Understaffed, but rallying on. The Necedah NWR in Tomah, Wisconsin hosts stopover habitat for migratory birds, including mallards, northern pintails, and other waterfowl species. While great jobs are available, many positions remain vacant at the refuge due to lack of funds. The current staff conducts critical wetland projects that enhance habitat for these birds. They’re hurting for additional staff, but they’ve done a fantastic job providing hunting and fishing services for the local community, including whitetail, waterfowl, and wild turkey hunts. The refuge also hosts the national Junior Duck Stamp contest where youth can submit their artwork and possibly have it displayed on the five-dollar stamp. While designing the stamps, children learn about wetlands and waterfowl conservation.
You break it, they fix it. During our time at the Upper Mississippi River NWR in the La Crosse, Minnesota, we saw the damage created by the Army Corps of Engineers through the lock and dams and dredging projects. The refuge staff is working on restoring the wetlands back to their original state by flooding the river and removing invasive species. The dredging of the Mississippi River in Winona, Minn., decreases sediment, but the Gulf Coast feels the burden because lands in Louisiana and other Gulf states are eroding. The importance of funding restoration projects in the river is critical for about 45 percent of the world’s canvasback duck population and for fisheries located in the Gulf of Mexico.
Vandalism creeping in. The Upper Mississippi River NWR is a great example of where people can exercise their right to access public forests, grasslands, and wetlands, even if they live in a populous city, Minneapolis. Another example, the Minnesota Valley NWR, provides education and access opportunities for Bloomington, a suburban area around the Twin Cities. Unfortunately, the refuge is understaffed and has difficulty keeping up enough of a presence to prevent vandalism, which also contributes to maintenance backlogs. Pollution, such as litter, is also a conservation challenge here, so volunteers and partners help fill the void by providing additional hands in restoring habitat.
While these collaborative efforts between local and federal agencies and organizations are something to celebrate, they can only do so much for the National Wildlife Refuge System without adequate funding. The NWRS needs more funding to help broaden collaborative efforts and not fatigue partners. When our public land managers see budget cuts, our hunting and fishing opportunities are on the chopping block. Congress has until December 9 to figure out the full funding picture for 2017 or punt these decisions to the next Congress. Whatever they decide, we’ll continue pushing for better investments in conservation as the cornerstone of our proud public lands traditions and the outdoor recreation economy that supports local spending.