By Alston Chase
While sportsmen oil their weapons in preparation for hunting in wildlife refuges this fall; they should be forewarned: This season could be their last. Very quietly, the Clinton administration is seeking to ban recreational and economic activities – including hunting, fishing, swimming, canoeing, camping, picnicking, haying, forestry and farming – from the nation’s 510 wildlife refuges. And while Congress has succeeded in forcing the postponement of this elitist policy, preservation ideologues within the White House continue to prepare the way for its eventual implementation.
The gambit began in October 1992, when several activist groups, including the Wilderness Society, sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the refuges, insisting outdoor sports were “incompatible” with preservation, which they said was the highest purpose of the refuges.
This claim was patently false. Such activities are clearly permissible by law and are allowed under appropriate circumstances. Ever since the first sanctuary was established in 1903, managers were given considerable freedom to decide how to run their reserves. This flexible approach was sound ecological policy, recognizing that since each area is unique and subject to changing environmental conditions, a single national policy would do more harm than good. The same commitment to multiple use was evinced by the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966. Organizing refuges into a system, it authorized the Interior Secretary to “permit the use of any area within the system for any purpose, including but not limited to hunting, fishing, public recreation and accommodations.”
The lawsuit therefore should have been easy for the service to win. But last October, the administration settled the suit out of court, giving away the store to environmentalists -a decision that coincidentally occurred after Wilderness Society President George Frampton was appointed assistant secretary of Interior, thus being transformed from plaintiff to defendant. In that agreement, the service promised to produce a plan by this Oct. 20 showing how it will terminate outdoor recreation in each refuge “expeditiously” unless stringent conditions were met.
Suggesting the settlement gave it no choice, the administration launched a “compatibility” study transparently designed to end outdoor recreation. But its bigger aim was philosophical: to replace the service’s stewardship conservation ethic with a preservationist, hands-off approach. Rather than allowing such acts as maintaining dikes that protect wetlands or cultivating vegetation to improve bird habitats, it would implement the same regime of benign neglect that is decimating biological diversity in the national parks.
Fashioning new priorities, it proposed diverting funds from recreation to “biological diversity,” endangered species and land acquisition (whose budget would increase 188 percent). Simultaneously, it announced there might not be sufficient funds for recreation. So although refuges already covered 92 million acres (an area larger than the state of Nevada), it planned to purchase more, even as, pleading poverty, it would close these places to most public use.
Naturally, duck shooters and others cried foul, and Congress reacted. In June, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) inserted language into the service’s appropriations package directing that “current activities be continued.” Given little option, Service Director Mollie Beattie issued a press release promising “no hunting programs on national wildlife refuges will be halted this fall.
Beattie’s emphasis was clearly on “this fall.” And indeed, Nickles’ measure will only delay the anti-recreation juggernaut, not stop it.
The service still intends to reprogram monies toward its purist objectives. Meanwhile, with the help of environmental groups, it is composing a policy statement called “Refuges 2003” to institutionalize these priorities. Ostensibly intended to prevent “political meddling,” this effort’s real purpose is to render wildlife policy immune from public accountability by making it more difficult for Congress or future administrations to change. By creating a paper trail that gives preservation highest priority, it provides a record activists can use to prevail in future lawsuits aimed at ending activities they oppose.
Pandering to a small clique of elitists, the Clinton administration has narrowed the service’s political constituency until it could sit on the head of a pin. That’s the name of the game in preservation politics these days. As environmentalism becomes more extreme and less representative, its adherents pursue their agendas in ways that avoid public debate. And as Congress evinces growing hostility toward a preservation purism that abuses property rights and favors insects and rodents over people, these perfectionists depend less on legislation than they once did. Rather than seeking new laws, they bend old ones, relying on favorable decisions from magistrates, who, coming from the same privileged class, share their arrogance.
After all, the last thing they want is to let the people decide. §
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