Bills in the House: One Hurts and Other Helps Refuge System

Yesterday, the House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs held a hearing discussing several bills important to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service).  One bill would remove the authority from the Service to expand refuges, and another bill would increase the price of the Federal Duck Stamp. We were excited to host Martin Cornell, a retired DOW Chemical scientist with the Friends of Brazoria Wildlife Refuges in Texas, who testified against the refuge expansion bill.

Refuge Expansion Limitation Act

H.R. 3409, also known as “the National Wildlife Refuge Expansion Limitation Act” is a bill that would amend the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 to require that any expansion of a national wildlife refuge must be expressly authorized by statute. The intent of the bill was to halt any expansion of existing refuge boundaries without a law passed by Congress.  However, due to Mr. Cornell’s precise reading of the bill, he realized that the bill as written would halt any land going into the Refuge System  – even within existing refuge boundaries and acquired with a donation, Duck Stamp funds, or Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars.  Nothing would be allowed to “expand” a refuge without a Congressional statute.  The Refuge Association and others remain adamantly opposed to the bill as it would bring Congress into a process that has been up to this point, locally driven.

How Would This Bill Change Things?

Martin Cornell in hearing room before the hearing started | Emily Paciolla
Martin Cornell in hearing room before the hearing started | Emily Paciolla

When the Service proposes an expansion of a refuge boundary, there is a transparent and rigorous public process in which the local community is engaged. Refuge staff conduct forums, visits, meetings, and open houses to ensure the public has a say in what occurs. Typically, if there is strong opposition, the expansion will not proceed. This has proved to be quite successful due to the heavy involvement of the local communities. If this bill passes, the process would be removed from the local level and brought up to Washington, D.C. slowing the process down, and also removing the local input. Considering the speed at which Congress operates these days, it would in effect halt all boundary expansions.

This Bill Would Hurt Refuges

In addition, the bill is retroactive which would hurt refuges like the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge in the Texas Mid-coast Refuge Complex where Mr. Cornell is from. Brazoria County, TX, where the refuge is located, is home to a old-growth bottomwood forest which hosts over 29 million individual birds annually. Due to urban development, the Friends and Refuge staff came to the conclusion that more land was needed to protect this vast population of birds and efforts were made to purchase new land. In his testimony, Mr. Cornell stated,  “One recent example is the 338-acre tract of bottomlands forest, appraised at one point eight million dollars, donated by The Dow Chemical Company, our county’s largest employer. Today, this Dow Woods Unit of the San Bernard NWR is an “urban refuge” that was enjoyed by over 4,500 visitors last year. If H.R. 3409 is enacted, additions like Dow Woods would require a time-consuming, cumbersome, and likely deal-killing act of congress.“ Click here for Mr. Cornell’s full testimony.   Thank you Marty and the Friends of Brazoria NWR for your help!

Price Increase for the Federal Duck Stamp

The other bill considered was H.R. 5069, a bill that would increase the price of the Federal Duck Stamp from $15 to $25. The Refuge Association along with Ducks Unlimited and several other organizations – including the Friends of the Duck Stamp – are in full support of this bill. It has been 23 years since there has been an increase in the price of the Duck Stamp while the price of purchasing land has tripled. The additional funds would only be used for easements and not for fee transactions where the federal government owns the land.  The first $15 would still be able to be used for both easements and fee acquisitions. Not only would this expand the habitat for these important migratory and wetland birds, it would also expand opportunities to bird and hunt. With more birders and hunters, this could increase the stimulus to the local economies. As Deputy Director of the Service, Steve Gurtin, stated the Duck Stamp “is a critical tool”.

What Now?

It is expected that these bills will eventually receive votes in the House Natural Resources Committee before going to the House floor.  That likely won’t happen until the House returns in September after their August recess.  A companion Senate bill (S.1865) to raise the price of the Duck Stamp was voted out of the Environment and Public Works Committee in February.  And similar language prohibiting the creation of new refuges or expansion of existing ones was included in the House Interior Appropriations bill – although the appropriations process has stalled for now.  The Refuge Association will be working hard to pass H.R. 5069 and S. 1865 to increase the price of the Duck Stamp and we’ll be working equally hard to ensure no bills or language to prohibit the executive branch from expanding refuge boundaries or creating new ones passes either chamber.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2014/07/bills-in-the-house-one-hurts-and-other-helps-refuge-system/

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