U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

Additional Flexibility Needed to Deal with Farmlands Received from the Department of Agriculture

GAO-07-1092: Published: Sep 18, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 18, 2007.

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Over the past two decades, provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985, among others, have allowed the Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency in partnership with the Department of the Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to add farmlands found to have important resources to the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Farm Service Agency transferred such farmlands to the Service through outright ownership ("fee simple") or through conservation easements. Individual farmlands are managed by the nearest refuge office. GAO was asked to examine (1) the extent of farmland received by the Service, (2) the extent to which the Service is currently managing its farmlands, and (3) alternatives for managing these lands. To answer these objectives, GAO visited five refuges and surveyed managers responsible for a random sample of 98 farmlands.

Since 1986, the Service reports that it has received at least 1,400 conservation easement and fee-simple farmlands covering 132,000 acres, but the actual number is unknown because the Service's records are incomplete. Scattered across 38 states, these farmlands range in size from less than 1 acre to more than 2,200 acres; most are smaller than 50 acres. In addition, GAO identified farmlands that were not reported by the Service headquarters or regional offices. Therefore, the numbers reported here represent a conservative estimate of the total acreage received from the Farm Service Agency. The Service is generally not managing a majority of its farmlands. In the past 5 years, only 13 percent have been inspected annually, on average. The Service is thus not adequately ensuring landowners' compliance with easement restrictions. GAO observed ongoing easement violations, including farming encroachment. Few refuge offices track changes in land ownership, and basic maintenance has seldom been completed. Several factors have hindered the Service's farmland management. First, refuge officials do not emphasize managing most of the lands because they do not believe they contribute to the refuges' mission. Second, uncertainty about the extent or scope of some easements makes management activity difficult. Third, constrained resources and declining staff hinder completion of management activities. Nevertheless, GAO found that farmlands most closely aligned with refuge goals receive considerably more attention. The Service possesses limited alternatives for managing its farmlands. Alternatives include (1) resetting refuge priorities to ensure that farmlands are given management attention, (2) requesting additional resources, and (3) paying little or no management attention to the farmlands. The Service has in most cases chosen the third alternative, and refuge officials indicated that this approach is unlikely to change. Because these lands are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, under current law the Service cannot dispose of unwanted farmlands, regardless of their value to the refuge system's mission. Consequently, the Service may need additional flexibility on a limited and short-term basis to resolve the issue of unwanted farmlands.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (Service) management of its farmlands, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Service to ensure that the Service's records for all of its farmlands are accurate and complete by reconciling regional and refuge office records and property records to determine which farmlands were transferred from the Farm Service Agency.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our September 2007 report on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (Service) management of farmlands it received from the Department of Agriculture, we found that the Service had an incomplete account of its farmlands because some farmlands we identified through refuge office site visits were not contained in the Service's centralized database of lands or reported to us by its regional offices. To improve the Service's management of its farmlands, we recommended that the Service take action to ensure that the Service's records for all of its farmlands are accurate and complete by reconciling regional and refuge office records and property records. Based on our audit findings and recommendation, the agency has taken action to address this recommendation. Specifically, in December 2009, the Service's local and regional units completed a detailed inventory of all of the farmlands, including their location, size, responsible managing unit, type of interest (fee-simple or conservation easement), as well as additional management information. In our report, we identified 1,412 farmland parcels covering roughly 132,000 acres. The complete inventory produced by the Service included 3,038 parcels covering 194,363 acres.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Service's management of its farmlands, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Service to develop a proposal to Congress seeking the authority for additional flexibility with regard to the farmlands the Service determines may not be in the best interest to continue to include as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed proposed legislation to dispose of FSA properties that it determined may not be in the best interest to continue to include as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. As of April 2011, the proposed legislation was undergoing agency review, which is expected to be finalized in March 2012.

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