Storm Brewing Over Wildlife Refuges

A proposal to open nation's 92-million-acre system to hunting, fishing raises environmentalists' eyebrows

ALONG the Oregon-California border, the Klamath Basin is teeming with wildlife this time of year. The number of waterfowl soon will peak at upwards of 1 million ducks, geese, swans, pelicans, and other birds - some year-round natives, others en route along the Pacific flyway.

It seems serene and timeless, but the setting is at the center of a political controversy over the future of national wildlife refuges, six of which are clustered here.

A congressional proposal would make hunting and fishing official purposes of the national refuge system. Critics say the measure also could open wildlife refuges to jet skiing, power boating, and other inappropriate recreational activities, and that it might even lead to environmentally damaging commercial uses such as ranching, mining, and oil and gas exploration.

"Almost everything it does is negative to the system," says Bill Ashe, a 37-year employee of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service who worked on more than 50 national wildlife refuges around the country before retiring.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt warns that the measure "weakens our ability to protect America's wildlife refuges from harmful activities." Mr. Babbitt says he is "deeply troubled" by one provision that would allow the use of pesticides on leased farmland within the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northern California. Babbitt has threatened a presidential veto should the bill reach the White House.

But supporters of the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act, as it is called, say environmentalists and animal-rights groups are misrepresenting a bill that would simply state once and for all the purposes and compatible uses of refuges - and that the main use would remain protection of wildlife and habitat.

Too much discretion?

Part of the problem, says Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska, chairman of the House Resources Committee and the bill's main author, is that federal refuge managers have had too much discretion in deciding whether hunting, fishing, and other activities should be allowed in their domain.

"It is time to manage the refuge system on a nationwide basis and to make 'compatibility' determinations based on clear statutory language and not on emotion or an individual's bias," says the Alaska lawmaker, whose Capitol office is adorned with a stuffed bear and other hunting trophies.

Tar and feathers

Over the years, there have been sharp clashes between refuge managers and resource users. When Denzel and Nancy Ferguson ran the field station at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, they were nearly run out of town by local ranchers fighting the couple's efforts to end cattle grazing on parts of the refuge.

"We started a letter-writing campaign to get some of the cows off the refuge," the Fergusons write in their book, "Sacred Cows at the Public Trough." "Shortly afterwards, we were physically ejected from a public dance in the small ranching community of Diamond, Ore. We were perfunctorily tossed out the door by a gang of five robust cowmen, considerably more force than was actually required to eject one woman and a middle-aged college professor, and warned that if we did not leave the county immediately, we would be killed."

In part to avoid such conflicts by setting standards for appropriate refuge activities, the Young bill defines "compatible" as any use "that will not materially interfere with or detract from the fulfillment of the purposes of a refuge ... as determined by sound resource management, and based on reliable scientific information."

While it outlines goals related to wildlife and habitat protection (including efforts to "preserve, restore, and recover" animal and plant species protected under the Endangered Species Act), the measure also lists fishing and hunting among the "purposes" of the national wildlife refuge system.

In fact, the bill's supporters point out, hunting and fishing already are allowed at least part of the year on about half the nation's 504 wildlife refuges (mostly in Alaska).

Since established in 1903 by Theodore Roosevelt, former president (and avid hunter), the National Wildlife Refuge System has evolved into what government officials boast is "the world's most comprehensive system of lands devoted to wildlife protection and management." The system now totals nearly 92 million acres with units in all 50 states.

'Wild' exaggeration

The refuges are governed by a relatively brief and general law passed 30 years ago. That law's author - Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan - agrees that the US needs the more-specific proposal he has joined Representative Young in supporting. "The opponents of the bill have wildly exaggerated it," says Dennis Fitzgibbons, a spokesman for Mr. Dingell.

But environmentalists remain suspicious. They note that Young, an Alaskan, is leading the effort to open the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

In addition, they point out, two other Democrats supporting the Young bill (Reps. Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes, both of Louisiana) want to lessen federal wetlands regulations. The National Rifle Association supports the Young bill as well.

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