Established in 1906, the National Wildlife Refuge System has been the backbone of our efforts in protecting the quantity and quality of our nation's fish, wildlife and plant species. Our nation has rightfully seen fit to set aside 92 million acres of land and water in all 50 states and territories. Fully one-third of these lands are wetlands, surely one of the more threatened and critical ecosystems in our country. The diversity of these lands is absolutely astounding, ranging from the stark beauty of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, to the verdant richness of the Cabo Roja National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico.
Equally diverse are the reasons why people visit the refuges. More than 24 million people come to observe and photograph the always fascinating and colorful plant, fish and wildlife. Another five million come to try their hand at landing that big one that will be the basis for umpteen fish stories for years to come. Generations of hunters have enjoyed the solitude and abundance of nature that refuges provide. All in all, more than 37 million people are drawn to our refuges annually.
California is fortunate indeed in having 37 National Wildlife Refuges encompassing more than 400,000 acres. They are equally diverse in their physical nature and why people visit them.
The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge is situated in the densely populated San Francisco Bay area, which is home to more than six million people. The refuge, with its mudflats, salt marshes, and rich estuarine lands, is a small remnant of a once vast "baylands" that teemed with plant and wildlife. Today less than one-quarter of the salt marshes that made up the bay remain, primarily in protected lands such as the refuge. The refuge provides a welcomed respite from the daily grind for more than 300,000 visitors per year. They come primarily to walk the trails, observe the wildlife, and to learn more about the magic of San Francisco Bay.
Some 300 miles to the north straddling the Oregon-California state line is the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. The Lower Klamath Refuge was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, and was our nation's first waterfowl refuge. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as both a National Historic Landmark and a National Natural Landmark. The 47,600-acre refuge is a varied mix of shallow marshes, open water, grassy uplands, and croplands that are used by marsh birds and waterfowl. This wonderful place is visited by more than 200,000 people annually.
Mr. Chairman, I cite these two refuges to demonstrate the rich variety and importance of National Wildlife Refuge to the people of my State of California. I am sure that each committee member can cite the importance of refuges to the citizens of their home states.
Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you personally for introducing the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997. Curiously, the Refuge System has never had a clearly defined mission. Your bill will correct this by clearly establishing the conservation mission of the System, while providing managers clear direction and procedures for making determinations regarding wildlife conservation and public uses of the System and individual refuges.
Your bill will also require the Secretary of Interior to prepare a comprehensive conservation plan for each refuge. Developed with full public participation, these comprehensive plans will assist managers in clearly articulating the long-term purpose of each refuge, and how activities on the refuge can help realize that purpose.
Mr. Chairman, the value of the National Wildlife Refuge System cannot be measured solely in acres of wetlands, numbers of waterfowl, variety of threatened and endangered species protected, or dollars to the local economy. Perhaps the more important value of the refuges is as a reminder of what America once looked like. A reminder of the diversity of the plants, wildlife, and fish that once blessed every corner and every acre of our wonderful country. A reminder of a time when the wonder of a wind-swept field of royally clad lupines or a lonely cry of a loon could be enjoyed on a daily basis.
Or perhaps the ultimate purpose of our Refuge System is as a harbinger of what our country can once again be, with thoughtful leaders and the perseverance of all people who hold wild things dear and important. I hope that for the sake of future generations of Americans, this ultimate purpose will someday be realized.
Thank you Mr. Chairman.