Wildlife refuges an eco­nomic en­gine

Na­tional refuges more than make up for their tax costs

The Covington News - - Agriculture & Outdoors - By Ben Evans

WASH­ING­TON ( AP) _ Na­tional wildlife refuges more than make up for their cost to tax­pay­ers by re­turn­ing about $ 4 in eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity for ev­ery $ 1 the gov­ern­ment spends, ac­cord­ing to a fed­eral study re­leased Tues­day.

Over­all, the refuges drew some 35 mil­lion hunters, an­glers, bird­ers and other vis­i­tors in 2006, sup­port­ing about 27,000 jobs, the study found. The South­east re­gion, the sys­tem’s largest di­vi­sion, drew the most vis­i­tors — 9.4 mil­lion.

Ad­vo­cates of the sys­tem pounced on the re­sults as ev­i­dence that bud­get cuts un­der Pres­i­dent Bush have been ill- ad­vised.

“ Refuges are eco­nomic en­gines in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. There’s no doubt about it,” said De­siree Soren­son- Groves, vice pres­i­dent for gov­ern­ment af­fairs at the Na­tional Wildlife Refuge As­so­ci­a­tion. “ The bud­get cuts have an im­pact ... You have peo­ple who are go­ing to refuges and there’s no staff, or a wildlife drive is closed be­cause it can’t be main­tained.”

Un­der an on­go­ing re­struc­tur­ing, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice is plan­ning to cut 565 jobs from refuges by 2009 — a 20 per­cent re­duc­tion. The plan would leave more than 200 refuges un­staffed.

Tues­day’s re­port, is­sued by Fish and Wildlife economists, said the ar­eas cre­ated some $ 1.7 bil­lion in eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity and $ 185 mil­lion in tax rev­enues.

Fish­ing and hunt­ing ac­counted for al­most 20 per­cent of the eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity.

The re­port, which re­lied on a sam­ple of 80 refuges, said more pop­u­lar refuges boasted eco­nomic re­turns far greater than the av­er­age. The Chin­coteague Na­tional Wildlife Refuge in Vir­ginia, for ex­am­ple, cre­ated about $ 155 in eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity for ev­ery $ 1 in fed­eral spend­ing.

The re­port also cited Oke­feno­kee in Ge­or­gia, Pea Is­land in North Carolina and Ding Dar­ling and Mer­ritt Is­land in Florida as par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar.

The na­tional sys­tem en­com­passes 548 refuges and more than 96 mil­lion acres in all 50 states.

The refuge bud­get grew rapidly af­ter Congress passed a land­mark im­prove­ment bill in 1997. With new land ac­qui­si­tions and a clearer man­date, the sys­tem’s fund­ing jumped from $ 178 mil­lion in 1997 to $ 391 mil­lion in 2004.

Re­cent years have seen stag­nant or de­clin­ing bud­gets, even as refuge of­fi­cials say they need $ 15 mil­lion in­creases just to keep pace with in­fla­tion, and a much larger amount to chip away at an es­ti­mated $ 2.5 bil­lion back­log for main­te­nance and op­er­a­tions.

Fish and Wildlife Di­rec­tor Dale Hall said the bud­get chal­lenges are “ fairly sig­nif­i­cant” and that “ we’d be naive to think that we wouldn’t lose some vis­i­ta­tion” as a re­sult of elim­i­nat­ing staff and re­strict­ing ac­cess in some ar­eas.

He said the agency would do its best to ex­plain to de­ci­sion- mak­ers “ that we get a tremen­dous re­turn on the tax­payer’s dol­lar.”

Tina Yerkes, a con­ser­va­tion pro­grams di­rec­tor with Mem­phis, Tenn.- based Ducks Un­lim­ited, said the study should spur law­mak­ers to re­con­sider the pro­gram’s bud­get.

“ It con­firms what we’ve known all along, that there’s great eco­nomic value,” Yerkes said. “And there’s cer­tainly a value be­yond that that’s more peo­ple- ori­ented: places to go, places to hunt, places to see birds and just en­joy the out­doors.”

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