Natural Resources and Environment:

Economic Uses of the National Wildlife Refuge System Unlikely To Increase Significantly

RCED-84-108: Published: Jun 15, 1984. Publicly Released: Jun 15, 1984.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of the Interior's plans to expand the economic and public uses of lands included in the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS), focusing on: (1) how expansion decisions were reached and whether data provided by individual refuges were considered in Interior's plans; (2) plans to increase oil and gas development on NWRS lands; and (3) policies of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for granting access to and use of public lands.

GAO found that FWS initiated two surveys of refuge managers to identify potential expansion of uses for NWRS lands. FWS projected a potential increase of $2 million from expansion of economic activities, exclusive of oil and gas development. However, many refuge managers believed that such increases were unlikely to be realized because of limited demand for products that could be produced on NWRS lands. GAO believes that these concerns are valid because of the low quality and small volume of products and the remote locations of many refuges. GAO also found that, although mitigation of potential damage to wildlife from oil and gas development is important, FWS has insufficient information as to the extent of oil and gas activities on NWRS lands to assess the impacts of current or increased development. In addition, FWS has not provided guidance to refuge managers on how oil and gas operations should be conducted. Recent congressional action has delayed plans to expand oil and gas activities on NWRS lands. GAO also found that FWS has no specific regulations on access to NWRS lands; some refuges allow access without permits while others do not. In addition, FWS is not: (1) consistently charging fees for access and other use permits; or (2) ensuring that collected revenues are deposited in the proper Treasury accounts.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FWS issued a chapter to its Refuge Manual dealing with the administration of specialized uses on national wildlife refuges. This chapter includes guidance on cost recovery, establishment of fees, documentation of specialized uses, and collection and deposit of fees. This guidance was dated August 18, 1986, and essentially served to standardize cost recovery procedures.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should require FWS to develop a fee system to recover, where practical, the administrative costs associated with processing permits for refuge access and use.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Interior believes that its present regulations give the refuge manager the authority and mechanism to adequately control user access on a case-by-case basis and is preferable to a standardized approach.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should revise FWS regulations on refuge access to specify under what circumstances access will be granted to oil and gas lessees and other economic users, requiring FWS to specify access provisions in either the lease, permit, or agreement for economic use of a refuge.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Director, FWS, was unable to develop the chapter due to legal issues of rights of surface versus subsurface. It will probably require a settlement in court before the chapter can be written.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should require the Director, FWS, to issue a chapter of the Refuge Manual concerning oversight of oil and gas operations to provide guidance for refuge managers.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FWS completed a survey of NWRS showing the nature and extent of mineral activities for calendar years 1984 and 1985, and intends to update the survey for calendar year 1986. The survey results have been incorporated into a computerized database that has been used to provide information on NWRS oil and gas operations to Congress, environmental groups, the oil industry, and others.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should verify the nature and extent of oil and gas exploration and production activities in NWRS and evaluate their impacts on refuge lands.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FWS drafted a chapter to its Refuge Manual in response to this recommendation, but it decided against finalizing the chapter at this time. Interior's solicitor concluded that further litigation may be necessary to clarify legal issues raised by the litigation. In the interim, FWS plans to issue guidance on the conduct of oil and gas operations on NWRS lands on a case-by-case basis.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should issue regulations concerning the conduct of oil and gas operations, especially seismic surveys, on NWRS lands.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should resolve the conflicting goals of: (1) promoting the multiple use of refuge lands; and (2) resolving resource problems on refuges. Any expansion of existing uses should be weighed carefully against any uncorrected existing problems and an individual refuge's capability to manage new or expanded uses.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Interior believes it has accomplished all three points through its instruction to the refuges.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should require FWS to improve its collection and tracking system for receipts which the refuges or regions collect. Such a system should include written guidance on where receipts should be deposited, a central coding procedure, and verification of these codes at the Denver Service Center.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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