JULY 30, 1997

Mr. Chairman, I'm pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the National Wildlife Refuge System improvement Act of 1997. It is a long-overdue "organic act" for our magnificent Refuge System. In 1991 and again in 1993, as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Fish and Wildlife, I introduced the National Wildlife Refuge System Management and Policy Act -- legislation which was very similar to that which is before us today.

My aims then were straightforward. First, to clarify that the purpose of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to conserve our nation's diversity of fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats. Second, to improve the process used to determine which public uses shall be allowed on the refuges. Third, to require the development of comprehensive conservation plans for each of the refuges and ensure that the public has ample opportunity to participate in the planning process as it does in planning for our national parks and national forests. Fourth, to lay out clear affirmative duties for the Secretary of the Interior to protect the integrity and plan for the appropriate expansion of the Refuge System.

My bill had the strong support of conservation groups like The Wilderness Society, the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Sierra Club. Thanks to Senators Chafee, Kempthorne, and Baucus, my bill also enjoyed the support of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies along with a variety of sportsmen's groups. The Environment and Public Works Committee reported that bill in the 103rd Congress but unfortunately we were not able to bring the bill to the Senate floor because a number of procedural holds were placed on the bill.

In the last Congress, the Mouse introduced and passed a radically different bill that would have harmed our Refuge System. President Clinton indicated that he would veto the Mouse bill but fortunately, it was not acted upon by the Senate.

The bill before us today is not identical to the bill I introduced in prior years. It is not exactly how I would have drafted it, but I am very pleased that it addresses the four major areas that I outlined above: a mission statement for the system, a formal process to assess the compatibility of refuge activities, a planning requirement, and duties for the Interior Secretary.

Of course, even with passage of this bill, the Refuge System will only meet its potential to conserve the nation's fish and wildlife if the Congress appropriates the funds necessary for its proper management. I am pleased that the Mouse has approved a healthy increase for this purpose in its FY 1998 Interior Appropriations bill and will work to ensure that the Senate does as well. Senator Kempthorne and I and 18 of our colleagues have written to the Appropriations Committee to urge such funding.

Theodore Roosevelt's Endangered Species Act

Ninety-four years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt established the first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island in my state of Florida. This bold move protected the last remaining nesting colony of brown pelicans on the Atlantic seaboard. But as critical as this action was for the pelicans, it had much broader importance for the nation's wildlife because it began our only system of national lands dedicated to wildlife conservation.

Before leaving office, Roosevelt went on to establish more than 50 such sanctuaries. Herons, egrets, pelican and other shorebirds, along with all manner of water fowl found sanctuary on Roosevelt's refuges. barge mammals including bison, elk and antelope were also protected. In this sense, the Refuge was Roosevelt's Endangered Species Act.

Refuges continue to be created to meet the most pressing wildlife conservation challenges of the day. Refuges have been established for endangered fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs, bats, and butterflies. In my state we even have the new bake Wales Ridge Refuge established for endangered plants. And while we have many refuges to protect endangered species, we know that many other species would be headed for the endangered species list were it not for the protections afforded by the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Today the Refuge System includes more than 500 refuges and 92 million acres which makes it larger than the National Parks System. Yet in the lower 48-states, the Refuge System amounts to less than 4 percent of the federal public lands and less than 1 percent of the total land area of those states.

In Florida we have twenty-five refuges encompassing more than a million acres of land and water. These include refuges to protect our manatees, Florida panthers, sea turtles, Key deer, crocodiles and those endangered plants.

Public support and use of the Refuge System

Our Refuge System has been strongly supported by bird watchers, hunters, and anglers throughout its history -- even though there was very little recreation permitted for much of the system's history. For example, hunting was a rarity on refuges until 1949, but hunters and sportsmen's organizations were strong supporters of the system even in those early years because they realized that without protected habitats, there could be no wildlife.

Today, the Refuge System provides ample opportunities for fish and wildlife related recreation including wildlife observation, nature photography, and hunting and fishing, as well as environmental education. But these public uses are clearly secondary to the long-standing primary purposes of the Refuge System to conserve fish and wildlife and habitats. S. 1059 continues this clear distinction between the purpose of the Refuge System to conserve fish and wildlife, and the priority uses of the system which are those related to learning about or enjoying fish and wildlife.

Problems in the System

Unfortunately, public use has not always been carried out in a manner that is consistent with the well-being of our refuges and their wildlife. A 1989 study by the General Accounting Office found that secondary activities considered by refuge managers to be harmful to wildlife resources were occurring on nearly 60 percent on our refuges. Power boating, mining, military air exercises, off-road vehicles, and air boating were cited as the most frequent harmful uses. Oil and gas drilling, timbering, grazing, farming, commercial fishing, and even wildlife related recreation such as hunting, trapping, and wildlife observation in some instances were also found to harm wildlife or habitat. A 1991 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed the GAO's findings. The Service found that harmful activities were present at 63 percent of the refuges.

At one time, for example, the Key West National Wildlife Refuge harbored the only known breeding colony of frigatebirds in the United States. The Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, also in the Florida Keys, hosted numerous colonies of wading birds. But increased activity within the refuges by jet skiers, power boaters, water skiers, campers, and others was the most likely reason that the frigatebirds abandoned the refuge rookery and the chief culprit behind the fact that other birds have showed signs of declining breeding success.

Refuge managers, despite their best efforts, have often been susceptible to outside pressure to allow these damaging activities because the laws governing the Refuge System are not completely clear. Furthermore, decisions about which activities were compatible with wildlife conservation purposes have often been made without adequate public input or written records. The problem had been compounded in past years by lack of periodic reevaluations of uses.

Action to restore integrity to the Refuge System

Fortunately, the Clinton Administration has taken a number of steps to resolve many of the problems in the National Wildlife Refuge System. I like to believe that the interest and oversight that we provided in a bipartisan fashion in the 102nd and 103rd Congresses set the stage for these improvements.

A number of harmful economic, recreational, and even military activities have been eliminated or appropriately reduced. In Florida, for example, action has been take by the Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce the number of people allowed to scuba dive along side manatees in the Crystal River refuge that was established to protect the manatee. Likewise, the Service has taken action to reduce public use at the Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge. And a back-country plan has been implemented in the Florida Keys to greatly reduce conflicts between people and wildlife.

President Clinton has also issued an Executive Order on the management of the Refuge System that specifies that the mission of the refuges is to preserve a national network of lands and waters to conserve our wildlife diversity. The Executive Order also appropriately ensures that recreational pursuits that are related to fish and wildlife will take priority over other activities not so related.

Now, as in the past, I am gratified to be part of the process of updating the laws the govern our magnificent National Wildlife Refuge System. It is my sincerest hope that this new law will improve the Refuge System for the benefit of our nation's fish and wildlife and for generations of Americans to come.