Opening Statement by Senator John H. Chafee
Hearing before the Committee on Environment and Public Works
July 30, 1997

Good morning. The purpose of this hearing is to solicit views on S. 1059, to improve management of the National Wildlife Refuge System. S. 1059 is a companion bill to H.R. 1420, which recently passed the House by the remarkable vote of 407 to 1.

The National Wildlife Refuge System was started in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, with the establishment of the first refuge on Pelican's Island in Florida. It has since evolved into a system of Federal lands consisting of 509 refuges in 50 states, covering 93 million acres, for the conservation of fish, wildlife and plants. Despite sixty years of growth, however, the refuge system remained without a law governing its administration until 1966, when Congress passed the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act. Even now, almost a century later, there is no law that identifies a mission or articulates guidance for refuge management.

The 1966 Act brought the diverse collection of refuges into a unified system of management, and authorized the Secretary to allow secondary uses on a refuge provided that they are compatible with the purposes for which the refuge has been established. The allowance of compatible uses has become the cornerstone of the refuge system, balancing the needs of the fish, wildlife and plants for which the refuge was established, with our own ability to use and enjoy the refuge for a wide range of activities.

However, the refuge system still lacks a true "organic" act, a basic statute that articulates an overall mission for the system, and that gives refuge managers guidance in determining what activities are in fact compatible with the purposes of the refuge. Most refuges have been established by the Secretary of the Interior over the years under a broad range of statutory authorities, while others have been established by specific acts of Congress. These disparate sources of authority, along with the lack of general mission and guidance for the refuge system, have led to inconsistency in the management of individual refuges. This inconsistency, and other problems with secondary uses of refuges, have been the subject of numerous studies over the last two decades, as well as a lawsuit brought by several environmental groups in 1992.

For several years, both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol have attempted to enact legislation to rectify this situation. The President has also taken administrative steps for improving refuge management with an executive order issued in March 1996. Earlier this year, after a month of negotiations among a broad range of stakeholders, the House passed H. R. 1420, which was then referred to the Senate.

It is incumbent upon us to expeditiously take up this legislation. Last week, I, along with Senators Kempthorne and Graham, introduced S. 1059, which virtually mirrors H. R. 1420, save for two fairly narrow but important changes. Both bills establish the mission of the refuge system as one to conserve fish, wildlife, plants and their habitat. Both bills allow compatible uses on refuges, but give priority to wildlife-dependent recreational uses, such as wildlife observation, hunting and fishing. The bills give substantive guidance and procedures for determining whether uses are compatible with both the mission of the overall system and the purposes of the individual refuge. The bills further require comprehensive conservation plans for each refuge.

One difference between S. 1059 and H.R. 1420 is that S. 1059 clarifies that compatible uses can be both wildlife-dependent and other uses. The other difference is that S. 1059 requires monitoring of the status and trends of fish, wildlife and plants on refuges.

My hope is to mark up S. 1059 and have it signed by the President quickly. With that, I look forward to this morning's testimony from our distinguished panelists.