Funding the Refuge System – Is the Battle Just Beginning?

Although the FY 2012 Interior appropriations bill (H.R. 2584), which would have slashed funding for the National Wildlife Refuge System and other important conservation programs, was abruptly pulled from the House schedule following word of an agreement on the national debt limit, the battle over deep cuts is just beginning.  As the new fiscal year quickly approaches, debate over Interior Department funding will have to resume after the August recess, potentially in the context of an omnibus measure that would combine this and other agency spending bills.

What does this mean for national wildlife refuges?  While it’s unclear how much the Refuge System will ultimately receive for its operations and maintenance in FY 12, H.R. 2584 would see it funded at only $455 million.  When factoring in rising costs of fuel, rent, and other fixed expenses, this represents a $45 million cut from FY 11.  At this level, the Refuge System would be forced to:

  • Close, or eliminate major programs at, 128 refuges.
  • Eliminate an estimated 200 wildlife and habitat management positions, reducing capacity for inventory and monitoring work, treatment of invasive species, and other habitat management activities.
  • Eliminate about 35 visitor service positions, leaving fewer staff available to coordinate a critical force of refuge volunteers and reducing the quantity and quality of recreational opportunities.  This could be devastating to many communities whose economic well being depends on high visitation at nearby refuges.
  • Eliminate approximately 40 law enforcement positions, leaving only 173 officers to do the work of what an International Association of Chiefs of Police study recommends should be done by 845 officers.

For an agency already stretched too thin, such cuts can be debilitating.  Complicating matters, the debt deal signed into law on Tuesday requires Congress to find $1.5 trillion in federal budget savings by the end of the year, and a further $917 billion in discretionary spending cuts over the next decade.  It remains to be seen where these savings will come from, but growing political hostility over environmental protection does not bode well for national wildlife refuges.

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Julie Kates is the Refuge Associate, Federal Lands Program for Defenders of Wildlife. Julie focuses on developing and implementing programs to enhance the conservation of biodiversity within the National Wildlife Refuge System, as well as supporting Defenders’ climate change adaptation work on federal lands.

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