TESTIMONY OF BRUCE BABBITT, SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR
BEFORE THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
REGARDING S. 1059, NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE SYSTEM IMPROVEMENT ACT
July 30, 1997

Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to appear before your Committee to express the Administration's support for S. 1059, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997. This Committee has played an important role in the development of this legislation. About 4 years ago, it was this Committee which recognized the need for organic legislation and began the effort which has led us to the threshold of consensus represented in S. 1059.

But this effort has not always been so amicable. During the last Congress, the House of Representatives passed legislation over the strong objections of the Administration. This Congress began essentially in the same way. In March, Chairman Young called me before the House Resources Committee where we had a fairly unproductive hearing -- not unlike many others -- where we exchanged our respective, seemingly irreconcilable, positions.

But afterward, outside of the hearing room, Chairman Young and I had a brief conversation and he expressed his desire to talk and try to work out a compromise. I decided to take him up on his offer, and we then invited Congressmen Miller, Saxton and Dingell to each commit their respective staff representatives to a process of focused discussion. We also invited the Wildlife Legislative Fund; the Audubon Society; the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies; and the Wildlife Management Institute.

We met once a week, for about 5 weeks. The environmental community wanted an unequivocal statutory declaration that wildlife conservation is the mission of the Refuge System. The hunting and fishing community and the state wildlife managers wanted statutory recognition that their activities constitute an appropriate use of the National Wildlife Refuge System, recognizing that the decision to allow hunting and fishing on any refuge must be predicated by an individual analysis and determination that the specific hunting or fishing program is compatible with the conservation mission of the system and purposes of the refuge. The result is a bill that will strengthen and improve our National Wildlife Refuge System as it heads into the 21st century.

The House of Representatives approved that bill by a vote of 407-1. With a couple of significant variations, S. 1059 is that same bill and I would like to take a few minutes to explain why it is so important for this Committee and this Senate to consider and pass this bill as soon as possible.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is the world's greatest system of lands dedicated to the conservation of fish and wildlife. It is a system founded in faith; a belief that, in a country as bountiful and diverse as ours, there ought to be special places that are set aside exclusively for the conservation of fish and wildlife resources. These special places are National Wildlife Refuges, where appropriately enough, the conservation needs of wildlife are paramount.

S. 1059 keeps this faith, by recognizing that the central, overarching purpose of the National Wildlife Refuge System is, and should remain, the conservation of fish, wildlife and their habitat.

The bill maintains the crucial distinction between wildlife conservation as the dominant refuge goal and compatible wildlife-dependent recreation as a priority public use. Wildlife conservation is our purpose. The opportunity for compatible recreational uses are the important benefits that flow from this purpose. Appropriately then, the bill recognizes that the use of our refuge lands and waters, to the extent that such use can be allowed, shall be reserved first to those recreational activities which depend and thrive on abundant populations of fish and wildlife. The obligation of the refuge manager is thus clear: wildlife conservation is foremost. Where recreational activity is appropriate, let compatible wildlife-dependent recreation, including hunting and fishing, come first.

This does not mean that other compatible non-wildlife dependant activities cannot also be allowed within a wildlife refuge. Rather, it simply acknowledges that those compatible activities which are truly dependent upon the presence of wildlife should, logically, be accorded a priority within a wildlife refuge over other proposed activities which are not tied to the presence of wildlife. Senator Kempthorne has authored a provision in S. 1059 which clarifies that both wildlife-dependent as well as other uses of refuges -- like grazing for instance -- can be "compatible uses", as long as they do not materially interfere with or detract from the fulfillment of the mission of the System or the purpose of the refuge. This proposed change is acceptable to the Administration.

The bill maintains the strict policy that all refuge uses must be "compatible". It sets up a sensible, consistent and public process for the Service's managers to follow in making compatibility determinations, and it adopts the Service's longstanding regulatory standard for compatibility.

S. 1059 appropriately defines the specific categories of wildlife-dependent recreation which are to be considered as the "priority public uses" for the refuge system: hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation. Where compatible, refuge managers are to provide increased opportunities for these uses and enhance the attention they receive in refuge management and planning.

Finally, the bill maintains the historic Refuge System policy that refuges are "closed until open". That is, in order to ensure that wildlife needs come first, existing refuge lands and waters are closed to public uses until they are specifically opened for such uses. However, a new process is established for identifying compatible wildlife-dependent recreational activities prior to the acquisition of new refuge areas, thereby avoiding the temporary closure of on-going compatible recreational activities.

Senator Graham has inserted another notable provision, requiring the Secretary to "monitor the status and trends of fish, wildlife, and plants in each refuge." Improving our biological capability at, and understanding of each refuge is vital to accomplishing our conservation mission. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey will be working hand-in-glove to fulfill this requirement and again, you have the Administration's full support.

Another issue which arose during House consideration of the bill concerns utility rights-of-way and other refuge uses which may be authorized for periods of many years. In the case of utility rights-of-way, authorizations are usually granted for periods of 30 to 50 years. Since the bill requires review of each non-wildlife dependent refuge use, at least every 10 years, the utility industry is concerned that these reviews not be interpreted to require a new permit process at each 10 year interval. This is not the case and during House consideration the Administration supported a colloquy to clarify that, in the case of such long-term authorizations, these reviews would examine compliance with permit terms and conditions and would not require a new permitting process. I understanding that some Senate Members may be interested in legislative language to codify this view. Provided language can be drafted that accurately reflects the House colloquy, I believe it would have the Administration's support.

Attached to my written statement is a summary of the key provisions of S. 1059. Mr. Chairman, let me say simply that your bill contains all of the key ingredients that will help improve our refuge system and we should get this legislation enacted as soon as possible.

Mr. Chairman, we have today an opportunity to enact historic legislation that embodies the principle that whether they cast a line, pitch a decoy, or click a shutter, the 30 million Americans who annually visit and enjoy our refuges have one common and enduring interest -- the conservation of fish, wildlife and their habitat. Ultimately, that is what the National Wildlife Refuge System is about and that is what this bill will promote and ensure.

I look forward to working with the Committee to enact this legislation as soon as possible. I am happy to answer any questions that you may have.


ATTACHMENT

Key Provisions of S. 1059

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act represents a consensus among diverse constituencies with interests in the management and use of the Refuge System. Negotiations leading to the development of the nearly-identical bill passed by the House involved Interior Department Secretary Bruce Babbitt; the legislation's sponsors, including Congressmen Don Young, John Dingell, Jim Saxton, and George Miller; and representatives of environmental and sportsmen's groups.

This legislation strengthens protections for individual refuges and for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Its main components improve on the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 by amending it to include a unifying mission for the Refuge System and a new process for determining compatible wildlife-dependent public uses of refuges.

Key provisions of S. 1059 mirror those found in President Clinton's Executive Order 12996, Management and General Public Use of the National Wildlife Refuge System, signed in March 1996. Provisions coinciding with the Executive Order are the mission statement, priority public uses, and a requirement that the environmental health of the Refuge System be maintained.

Mission

-- The legislation establishes a strong and singular conservation mission for the National Wildlife Refuge System:

"To administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans."

-- The legislation requires the Secretary of the Interior to ensure that the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System and purposes of the individual refuges are carried out. It also requires the Secretary maintain the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of the Refuge System.

Priority Public Uses

-- The legislation establishes certain wildlife-dependent recreational uses as priority public uses where compatible with the above mission and the purpose of individual refuges. These uses are hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation.

-- The legislation establishes these wildlife-dependent recreational uses as "legitimate and appropriate" public uses of the Refuge System. It states that these uses should be facilitated where compatible but does not mandate them.

-- The legislation retains refuge manager's authority to use their professional judgment to determine compatible uses and whether or not they will be permitted. It establishes for the first time a statutory process for determining what constitutes a "compatible use," and retains the regulatory definition of "compatible use" currently used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Interior Department agency responsible for managing the National Wildlife Refuge System.

-- The legislation authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to temporarily suspend the compatibility standard to cope with an emergency on a refuge threatening public health and safety or that of any wildlife population.

Public Involvement

-- The legislation requires public involvement in any decisions to allow new uses and renew existing uses.

-- The legislation requires public involvement in the development of comprehensive refuge management plans and requires that such plans be prepared for every refuge.

Other provisions

-- The legislation's new compatibility process exempts uses by other federal agencies with primary jurisdiction over the land on which a refuge is located and use of airspace over a refuge (which is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration). The legislation also provides for continuation of existing uses of refuge lands by other agencies under applicable laws and agreements.

-- The legislation maintains the status quo with respect to all aspects of water rights.

-- The legislation maintains the status quo with respect to state management of resident wildlife outside of refuge lands.