TESTIMONY OF JIM KURTH, CHIEF, NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE SYSTEM
April 29, 2014
Good morning Chairman Fleming, Ranking Member Sablan, and Members of the Subcommittee, I am Jim Kurth, Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) within the Department of the Interior. I appreciate the opportunity to testify before you today regarding H.R. 4402, the Guam Military Training and Readiness Act Of 2014. We recognize the importance of the training mission of the Nation’s military installations and we support that mission. There are a great many examples of thriving cooperative relationships between the Service and military installations. However, we oppose the bill for a number of reasons and urge the Congress to allow for continued work between the Service and the Navy to arrive at a satisfactory outcome that ensures full training for our troops.
National Wildlife Refuge System
The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System (Refuge System) is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans. Encompassing more than 150 million acres of land and water, the Refuge System is the world’s premier network of public lands devoted solely to the conservation of wildlife and habitat. The Refuge System preserves a diverse array of land, wetland, and ocean ecosystems—from Guam, American Samoa, and other remote Pacific islands, north to the high arctic of northern Alaska, east to the rugged coastline of Maine and south to the tropical U.S. Virgin Islands. National wildlife refuges are found in every U.S. state. In total, the Refuge System now contains 562 refuges.
The Refuge System offers about 47 million visitors per year the opportunity to fish, hunt, observe and photograph wildlife, as well as learn about nature through environmental education and interpretation. These visitors make refuges an important economic driver, generating nearly $2.4 billion for local economies each year. In Fiscal Year 2011 the Refuge System supported more than 35,000 private-sector jobs. Investing in the Refuge System is sound use of taxpayer dollars – each dollar appropriated for the Refuge System returns nearly five dollars in economic benefits. Refuges also provide local communities with other ecosystem services such as improved water quality. With its widespread presence and history of working with partners, the Refuge System also plays a key role in supporting innovative, community-level efforts to conserve outdoor spaces and connect people with nature.
Guam National Wildlife Refuge
Guam National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge) was established by Administrative Order on October 1, 1993. The Guam NWR is critical to conserving the natural heritage of Guam and it is a key proving ground for halting the spread of the pernicious brown tree snake (BTS). It is also an important destination to tens of thousands of visitors each year.
The Guam NWR comprises three units: the Andersen Air Force Base Overlay Refuge Unit, the Navy Overlay Refuge Unit, and the Ritidian Unit. The Ritidian Unit, which is owned by the Fish and Wildlife Service, was created from a small decommissioned, specialized naval installation, and is 1,217 acres, including near-shore marine habitat. Approximately, 22,456 acres of forested Overlay Refuge is owned by the Department of Defense in Air Force and Navy installations.
The Guam NWR was primarily established to protect and recover nine species listed under the Endangered Species Act and endemic to the Mariana Islands, including the Guam Micronesian kingfisher, Guam rail, Mariana crow, Mariana fruit bat, Vanikoro swiftlet, Mariana common moorhen, two species of sea turtles, and a tree known as hayun lagu. The 385 acre terrestrial portion of the Ritidian Unit is designated as Critical Habitat under the Endangered Species Act for the Guam rail, Mariana crow, and Mariana fruit bat.
At the time the Guam NWR was established12 other species of birds and the little Mariana fruit bat had unfortunately already completely disappeared from Guam due to predation by the introduced, non-native brown tree snake (BTS). With abundant prey and no natural predators, the BTS population rapidly grew and spread throughout the island. The BTS population continues to plague most of the island today and is a major threat to the listed species.
The Guam NWR creates the opportunity for a portion of Guam’s native wildlife legacy to be saved for the benefit of future generations of Guam residents. The Guam NWR provides habitat for the last remaining populations of the Mariana fruit bat and the hayun lagu tree on Guam and the best remaining habitats for recovery of other extirpated species. Recent installation of predator-proof fencing (at the cost of $866,000) around 125 acres of native forest on the Guam NWR, allows the Service to move beyond simply maintaining remnant populations of native species; we are finally able to turn the corner to begin their recovery. This fence protects native wildlife from all predators, including BTS.
In addition, the work done on the Guam NWR by the Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and others is leading and informing efforts to contain and reverse the spread of BTS elsewhere in the Pacific, most especially onto Hawai?i. The presence of BTS on O?ahu would compound interdiction efforts. Instead of having a single island in the Pacific (Guam), which requires an average of $4.79 million annually (2009-2012) for BTS interdiction, there would be multiple foci. Moreover, O?ahu as the transportation hub in the Pacific would require an order of magnitude greater expenditure of money and effort in an attempt to contain BTS. If BTS establish on O?ahu, their population is estimated to reach 7.5 million snakes on the island (Burnett et al. 2008). The associated economic losses from power outages and medical costs from snake bites could reach $761 million annually (Shwiff et al. 2010). Tourism could be impacted as well. If BTS invade all of Hawai?i, estimated annual costs from lost visitor days, ranged from $138 million to almost $1.4 billion. Focus has been on islands in the Pacific Region, however, it is worth noting that areas of the continental U.S. are also at risk of BTS invasion. The Guam NWR is the Pacific Island’s “Ground Zero” in the fight against this deadly invasive species.
The Guam NWR provides recreational and educational opportunities for over 92,000 residents and tourists per year. Of these 92,000 visitors, 35,000 local residents use the Guam NWR as a place for wildlife-related recreation, 45,000 tourists visit and provide economic benefits to the local communities, and 12,000 school children come to the Guam NWR to learn about conservation and the environment. To welcome visitors, the Guam NWR recently opened a Nature Center where exhibits introduce visitors to what Guam’s natural world was like over 500 years ago. The new Nature Center is the only environmental education facility on-island, and is a vital tool for communicating the value of stewardship for Guam’s environment. The Guam NWR also protects the cultural resources of the Chamorro people. It contains the oldest known and longest-lasting ancient Chamorro settlement site. Archaeological evidence of Guam’s prehistoric Chamorro culture can be found throughout the Guam NWR. Visitors are able to participate in forest and cave tours to view pictographs, ancient Chamorro pottery pieces and latte stones, which are the symbol of the Chamorro people.
H.R. 4402, Guam Military Training and Readiness Act of 2014
H.R. 4402, Guam Military Training and Readiness Act of 2014 would authorize the Secretary of the Navy to establish a surface danger zone (SDZ) over the Refuge or any portion thereof to support the operation of a live-fire training range complex (LFRTC) on Andersen Air Force, Northwest Field. Operation of the LFRTC on Anderson Air Force Base, Northwest Field, and the associated SDZ would be deemed authorized uses of the Refuge. The Secretary of the Navy would be able to prohibit access to the Refuge by all people, including Service staff and the public, preventing them from using any portion of the Refuge.
If H.R. 4402 is enacted, the Refuge would be severely impacted, compromising the wildlife heritage of Guam, recreational opportunities for residents and tourists, and the BTS interdiction program. The bill would substantially and materially interfere with the Refuge’s ability to meet its purposes and mission.
This legislation is contradictory to provisions in the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, as amended (16 U.S.C. 668dd-ee), as these activities are neither compatible with nor do they enhance the purposes for which the Refuge was established. Passage of this bill will essentially negate the conservation value of the Refuge for protecting and recovering listed species and protecting cultural resources. The Service would be unable to meet recovery objectives and goals for several threatened and endangered species. The Service may be unable to effectively repatriate several listed species to Guam and, thus, may be unable to ever recover them.
The Mariana crow is known only to occur on Guam and Rota. Only 130 crows remain on Rota. All Mariana crows have been lost from Guam. Recovery of the species is dependent on the protection of native limestone forests and maintaining minimal human disturbance.
The Guam Micronesian kingfisher is an endangered endemic Guam bird species which is extirpated from the wild and found only in captivity. Recovery is dependent on the protection of native limestone forests found primarily on the Refuge and Navy-managed lands.
The Mariana fruit bat is an endangered species throughout its range. Only a handful of fruit bats remain on Guam, though several thousand remain in the Northern Mariana Islands. Elimination of the Refuge will make augmentation of this small population difficult.
The Guam rail is an endangered endemic bird species. The rail is more resilient than the other key species, but the Refuge is expected to play a key role in determining how to reestablish this species back onto Guam.
The hayun lagu (Serianthes nelsonii) is a critically endangered tree species. A single mature hayun lagu remains on Guam, located in the Northwest Field of Anderson Air Force Base (part of the Refuge overlay). The Refuge has successfully grown and outplanted a handful of seedlings on its lands owned in fee title, which require constant treatment for pests and protection from nonnative ungulates.
The broad range and open nature of the bill seriously restricts Refuge management access to areas requiring wildlife management actions, including adequate maintenance of the predator fence. The fence is the cornerstone in our battle against predators. Without the certainty of a full-time functional fence, the long-term recovery potential for listed species and other species on Guam would be severely undermined. The fence must be frequently inspected to ensure it has not been compromised by vehicles, falling trees, etc. The intrusion of a single pregnant/gravid female predator could undo hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of work removing predators from behind the fence.
The Refuge is designated Critical Habitat for several federally listed species and is the prime repatriation site for species extirpated by introduced BTS. The Refuge is an important site for distinct populations of species endemic to the Mariana Archipelago. The success of these repatriations will depend on removal of all non-native predators from inside the predator-proof fence, the continual integrity of the fence, and monitoring and managing these repatriated populations and their habitats. Simply put, to do our job, we need certainty of access to this area. Without this access, the recovery of species has the potential to be completely undermined and may no longer be sustainable or worthwhile. Moreover loss of the Refuge as a repatriation site could reduce or eliminate our ability to re-establish species on Guam. Even if repatriation is still feasible under the bill, the disturbance impacts to habitats due to live-fire could make these habitats no longer suitable for species such as the Mariana crow and Mariana fruit bat. Therefore, we may be forced to determine recovery as infeasible on Guam. We do not want this to be the future of Guam’s wildlife legacy.
Access to the Refuge by the public (92,000 visitors annually) would be severely restricted by the bill. The Refuge includes the island’s best public beach, the oldest known and longest-lasting ancient Chamorro settlement site, and the only place to hear the songs of extirpated endemic birds.
Numerous short- and long-term research projects are conducted on the Refuge with partners. Uncertainty of access would affect the research, and potentially invalidate it. Currently, permitted research is done by USGS, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Water and Environmental Research Institute, Micronesian Area Research Center, Guam Environmental Protection Agency, and various universities including the University of Guam.
And the bill would deal a blow to the effort to control BTS. The USGS Brown Tree Snake Research Program has been co-located with Service staff at the Refuge since 1993. Access to Refuge facilities and lands has been essential for the success of this research program whose goal is to advance containment and control of this damaging invader. The USGS researchers make extensive use of a 400-square-meter pre-stressed concrete snake enclosure. This enclosure has been used for many research projects aimed at developing and testing control tools for BTS and is currently being used as the primary research site for a long-term investigation of the effectiveness of snake toxicants. Loss of consistent access to the USGS facilities at the Refuge could compromise the effectiveness of these studies and controls.
The Service and our collaborators are working aggressively to find a solution to curb the Pan-Pacific expansion of the range of BTS. We know that once snakes are established on islands, it is very difficult to eradicate them, so our priority is directed toward prevention of further invasions. Our defenses must be maintained around the clock. We cannot afford any set-backs in our battle against this devastating invasive species.
The Service recognizes the need for our Nation’s troops to have access to training facilities. These men and women have dedicated their lives to protecting our Nation and deserve access to the best training opportunities available. The Service is committed to being cooperative partner with our Nation’s military and have proven our commitment through a long history of working supportively with the military to help further both the conservation of our Nation’s precious natural resources and the vital training missions of our military. We believe before legislation is enacted related to Guam, the Service and the Navy should attempt to find a solution through ongoing discussions and the ongoing National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.
As part of this NEPA process, on April 18, 2014 the Department of Defense (DOD) issued a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) for their operations changes on Guam, including seven alternatives for the proposed LFRTC. We believe there are better and more environmentally preferred alternative sites for the LFRTC than over the Guam NWR that would also provide excellent training facilities for our troops. Instead of pursuing legislation, we urge Congress to encourage the DOD to select an alternative in their management planning and impact assessment process that is environmentally and operationally superior to the proposed site at Ritidian Point on Guam NWR.
Mr. Chairman, the Service opposes this legislation. If H.R. 4402 is passed, it will make otherwise incompatible activities on a National Wildlife Refuge authorized. It would limit the authority of the Secretary of the Interior and Director of the Service to carry out their duties and functions to protect and recover endangered species, and manage the lands, resources and public uses of the Guam NWR.
The Service is a strong partner with the Department of Defense and looks forward to continuing to work with them toward a solution that addresses the imperative need for training of our Nation’s troops and the conservation of our Nation’s natural resources.