National Wildlife Refuges:

Continuing Problems With Incompatible Uses Call for Bold Action

RCED-89-196: Published: Sep 8, 1989. Publicly Released: Sep 13, 1989.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO evaluated the Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) management of the secondary uses of national wildlife refuges, focusing on whether FWS met the purposes for which the refuges were established.

GAO found that: (1) although the refuges served their primary purpose of providing habitats and safe havens for wildlife, 90 percent of the 428 refuges had at least one secondary use, 70 percent had at least 7 different secondary uses, and more than 30 percent had at least 14 different secondary uses; (2) managing such secondary uses as public recreation, mining, and grazing increasingly diverted management attention from the wildlife functions that refuge staff were trained to perform and caused direct harm to wildlife resources; (3) FWS could not measure the impact of harmful uses on refuge performance, since it did not measure each refuge's wildlife enhancement potential; (4) refuge managers attributed the harmful uses of refuges to external pressures and limitations in FWS jurisdiction over refuge resources; (5) FWS allowed uses that refuge managers believed harmful in order to satisfy local public and economic interests due to its failure to periodically reevaluate ongoing secondary uses, as required; and (6) FWS jurisdictional limitations included lack of ownership of subsurface mineral rights, shared jurisdiction over navigable waterways within refuge boundaries, and military access to refuge lands and airspace that prevented it from stopping many activities proven to be harmful to wildlife resources.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Director issued a memorandum to all regions in December 1990 directing them to begin addressing incompatible uses found in the survey. FWS submitted a report on incompatible uses with the Director's testimony in March 1991 during oversight hearings. Other issues will be dealt with on a refuge-by-refuge basis.

    Recommendation: To ensure that secondary uses of national wildlife refuges are compatible with the primary purposes for which the refuges were established, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, FWS, to: (1) base compatibility decisions on biological criteria to prevent nonbiological considerations from influencing such decisions; (2) compile financial data on the cost of managing secondary uses to determine their impact on refuges' limited resources; (3) comply with the requirement in its Refuge Manual to reevaluate the compatibility of ongoing secondary uses on a periodic basis; and (4) eliminate all uses deemed, on biological grounds, to detract materially from the refuges' primary purposes.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Director, FWS, issued a memorandum to all regions in December 1990 directing them to begin addressing issues found in the GAO survey. FWS issued a report on incompatible uses in March 1991. The Director will deal with other issues on a refuge-by-refuge basis.

    Recommendation: To ensure that available resources are used effectively, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, FWS, to: (1) identify refuges where less than full ownership and control of necessary resources adversely affect the refuges' primary purposes; (2) establish guidance for determining whether refuges can effectively accomplish their primary wildlife resource purposes; and (3) determine whether these refuges should be improved through the acquisition of needed property rights or other steps, or be removed from the system on the basis of the above guidance, thus freeing limited resources for use at other wildlife refuges.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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