I would like to welcome Director Steven Williams for coming today to discuss the proposed budget for the Fish and Wildlife Service. It has been some time since the committee has held such a hearing, and I am looking forward to hearing from you regarding the funding of some of the projects at the Fish and Wildlife Service.
However, I would first like to bring to your attention a problem back in my state of Oklahoma. The Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed expanding the Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Oklahoma by nearly 12,000 acres. This proposal has been met with opposition from many local citizens. I am currently opposed to this proposal as I am concerned about how the refuge’s expansion would impact the area’s tax base. In tough economic times such as this, I cannot support an initiative that would potentially harm the local communities. What is the current status of this proposal and what can be done to address these concerns? Additionally, is it true that some of the money for the refuge may come from funds set aside for the Tar Creek remediation?
As I have stated in the past, I am a strong believer in cost-benefit analysis and strong science. It is critical that we get the most from our money, and I feel it is important to promote programs that have a proven track record. I am pleased that the Service has demonstrated a commitment to providing performance information to highlight projects that deserve additional funding. By knowing which projects work best, we can strengthen proven investments.
As this year is the centennial anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System, I am pleased by the renewed commitment to our nation’s natural heritage and support the $25.5 million increase in requested funding from FY 2003. It is my understanding that there is currently a tremendous maintenance backlog for current refuges. Hopefully, this increase will assist in alleviating this problem.
Additionally, there are a number of partnership programs that I feel are extremely important. There is one in particular I would like to bring to the Committee’s attention - the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. This is a voluntary initiative that works with local landowners, the people who work and know the land, to help promote habitat restoration projects on their property. And I am pleased that the budget request increases funding for this program by $38 million.
I would also like to take this opportunity to express my concern with the difficulties the military has faced as a result of the Endangered Species Act. The Armed Services have acted as stewards of their lands. As a direct result, the property where they train has become home to a number of endangered species. Unfortunately, ESA has become an obstacle to training our men and women who so bravely protect this nation. These obstacles could cost the lives of those who serve us - this is completely unacceptable. I believe that military encroachment is a serious issue that must be dealt with now.
As we are on the brink of war with Iraq, military readiness is more critical than ever. Unfortunately, the ability to train our troops has become limited due to current environmental law. This problem will only get worse over time unless addressed immediately. Already the Armed Services train in fear of a court ordered injunction as a result of environmental litigation - litigation that seeks to extend current law beyond what was intended by Congress.
The proposed Department of Defense legislation would not exempt the military from the Endangered Species Act. The Armed Services would use Integrated Natural Resources Management Plans, or INRMPs, in coordination with the Fish and Wildlife Service, in place of critical habitat designations. Our service men and women risk their lives to preserve the freedoms this nation holds dear. At the very least, they deserve the best available training.