23 November 2016
by Ed Penny board member, Friends of the Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp
Many of you have likely heard the news that the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge is in danger of losing most of its lands. The Refuge is located in western Palm Beach County, Florida and is composed of 221 square miles (approximately 144,000 acres) of land owned by the both the federal government (through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [USFWS]) and the State of Florida (through the Southwest Florida Water Management District [District]). For a long time, the USFWS and the District have partnered to manage wildlife habitat and to provide public access at this large refuge. It is the largest intact portion of all that remains of the once vast northern Everglades. The refuge is important to the nation, the state, and local communities – over 300,000 visitors come every year to hike, bike, canoe, kayak, fish, photograph, birdwatch, and learn about and explore the Everglades; thousands of Palm Beach County students have been able to experience the Everglades first-hand on field trips to the refuge.
But now, the refuge could be reduced to only the relatively small portion (ca. 3,000 acres) that was purchased with federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (or "Duck Stamp") funds. How could this happen to such an important land complex? The District is considering terminating its long-term cooperative agreement with USFWS to manage and operate the refuge. The District wants exclusive management control of this land because the spread of invasive exotic plants (primarily melaleuca trees and Old World climbing fern) on the Refuge has gotten out of hand. These invasive plants are a very serious problem because they overtake and replace native plants that provide homes for migratory birds and other wildlife. Their spread beyond the boundary of the refuge is a problem for neighboring landowners as well. (Both Melaleuca quinquenervia and the fern, Lygodium microphyllum, are on Florida's list of noxious weeds, and hence constitute species of particular concern.)
Control of noxious weeds requires a great deal of focused cooperation and financial investment, and termination of the agreement would force the District to foot the entire bill. The Refuge spent almost $3 million to treat invasive species last year, more than half of its entire annual budget, and the state spent a similar amount, but the problem continues. It is estimated that $5 million for 5 years would be required to bring these noxious plants under maintenance control. These costs are in addition to essential management costs like performing prescribed fires, clearing canoe trails, fighting wildfires, and assuming law enforcement responsibility for the entire area. It is also not clear how the state would continue any kind of educational or recreational opportunities for its visitors.
The National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Federation, the Everglades Foundation, the Everglades Coalition, and the Friends of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge are speaking up to bring attention to this issue and to help resolve this problem. For more information and to make your voice heard, visit http://refugeassociation.org/action.
The issue at this refuge and in other communities around the country with refuges or other public lands is not simply a bureaucratic tug of war between government agencies or an argument between big government or small government. The more broadly relevant issue here is the extremely dire need for committed care and stewardship of our public lands, whether they are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System or owned by a state agency. Our Friends group is very enthusiastic in supporting any land acquisitions made with Duck Stamp dollars, because we understand their importance. We are also quick to react to "action alerts" and to contact our elected officials when important funding vehicles like the Land and Water Conservation Fund are endangered by spending cuts. However, land "conservation" is more than just buying land for the public domain and then simply leaving it alone. You see, once lands are purchased with public dollars like those from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (Duck Stamp Fund), they must be managed and cared for to truly benefit migratory birds and Americans. Public land management requires sustained financial commitment, but public funding for science-based, habitat management has declined over the last several years.
What exactly is meant by habitat management? Habitat is the often referred to as "the place where an animal lives." It may be obvious, but birds live in the wetlands, grasslands, and forests of our public lands throughout the U.S. It may be counterintuitive, but these places cannot simply be "left alone" to be in a "natural state." These lands must be managed. Similar to a farm, these natural places often require intensive care and maintenance to continue providing food, cover, and places to nest for birds and other wildlife. For example, wetlands require periodic manipulation of water levels (draining and re-flooding) and soils (disking) to produce mudflats for shorebirds and natural foods for waterfowl. Grasslands require regular prescribed fire, and sometimes selective herbicides, to reinvigorate nesting cover for birds and to control the pressure from invasive weeds. Forests require selective timber harvests to help sunlight reach the forest floor; sometimes replanting to generate appropriate species is called for.
These management practices, which support bird and other wildlife populations, require significant investment to acquire water supplies, heavy equipment (tractors), materials (tree seedlings), and knowledgeable people (managers) who know how to use them. Professionals in conservation understand that land stewardship is difficult and sometimes expensive, and for this reason, working together through partnerships is often the best way to get things done. Collaboration and cooperation is rarely easy, though, so the District, USFWS, and their respective leaders should be commended and supported for cooperating for so many years to manage habitat and provide public access at Loxahatchee.
Compared to a large and controversial (or even a very popular) land purchase, science-based land management doesn't usually make for attention-grabbing headlines. That is, it doesn't until our failure to properly manage the land leads to a difficult situation like the one at Loxahatchee. But committed stewardship is just as important to migratory birds and our opportunities to enjoy them as land acquisition! A similar situation could occur at any of our treasured national wildlife refuges or state Wildlife Management Areas unless we acknowledge the problem of reduced funding for management.
The decline in funding for public land management is real and must be addressed. For those of us who truly love our migratory birds and public lands, whether we enjoy them in a duck blind or through the lens of a spotting scope, it is time to speak up for a stronger commitment to managing our public lands, regardless of their ownership.
Photo of Loxahatchee at Sunset by Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0.