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A call to defend wildlife refuges

Outside invaders are threatening to choke off native species.

JimSaxtonRead more

By Jim Saxton

In beautiful rural South Jersey, the 46,000-acre Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge is home to seal colonies, nesting eagles, and the world's fastest birds, peregrine falcons.

Many other species of land and marine wildlife inhabit or visit this natural bastion, stretched across Ocean, Burlington and Atlantic Counties, which includes 6,000 acres of designated wilderness areas.

It is a refuge in every sense of the word that permanently sets aside habitat amid intense development pressures. Forsythe is an example of the prizes that we as a nation win when we pursue conservation goals.

The U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System is the world standard when it comes to wildlife-habitat networks. In addition to providing places where flora and fauna can prosper, people can benefit, too. We can hike, fish, canoe, and do other outdoor recreational activities. Refuges are also economic engines that generate more than $1.4 billion annually to support local economies.

The refuges are indeed unique national resources.

Ten years ago, as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, I had high hopes when Congress passed the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997.

The Improvement Act gave the refuge system a clear mission, and directed that every refuge be managed to pursue the mission's objectives, leading to better overall management to achieve local, regional, national and international goals.

The law required each refuge to produce a Comprehensive Conservation Plan, via a process that allowed frank and open discussions between the refuge and the public. In 2004, the Forsythe plan was one of the first completed in the Northeast.

Since the passage of the act, we've made some progress on increasing maintenance funding and expanding volunteer programs. However, our refuges face a number of long-term problems that threaten the health of the refuge system that we must now confront, such as invasive species.

The bill H.R. 767, the "Refuge Ecology Protection, Assistance, and Immediate Response Act," or REPAIR Act, now before Congress begins to address the invasive species crisis in our refuge system. The bill would provide voluntary REPAIR Grants to states, local governments, regional agencies or individuals to fund the planning, execution, and maintenance of projects to remove invasive species on the lands and waters in and adjacent to National Wildlife Refuges.

Though the invasive species vary from refuge to refuge, our indigenous foliage in the Forsythe refuge is being choked by an army of nonnative plants. Refuge managers are grappling with a diverse threat from Norway maple, tree of heaven, phragmites, Chinese wisteria, Japanese wisteria, multiflora rose, Japanese stilt grass, autumn olive, Russian olive, white poplar, periwinkle, oriental bittersweet, a bamboo variety, mimosa tree, Japanese knotweed, Japanese honeysuckle and English ivy.

Many invasive-species problems come from outside the refuge, where the native plant communities have been disrupted and invasive species fill the habitat voids. It is very important to integrate measures to control invasive species on and off the refuges.

The Improvement Act paved the way for comprehensive legislation like the proposed REPAIR Act.

We have a lot at risk should we fail to act. There are 548 refuges spread out in every state in the union. Every major U.S. city is within a one-hour drive of a refuge.

I hope over the next 10 years we can build upon the successes since the Refuge Improvement Act was enacted.