Since it was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 at Pelican Island in Florida, the refuge system has grown to 508 refuges in all 50 states, encompassing 92.3 million acres of land. Thirteen new refuges have been added so far during the Clinton Administration.
As defined by the Executive Order, the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is "to preserve a national network of lands and waters for the conservation and management of the fish, wildlife, and plants of the United States for the benefit of present and future generations."
The Order also addresses four principles to guide management of the system: habitat conservation, public use, partnerships, and public involvement. It recognizes compatible wildlife-dependent recreational activities involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation as priority general public uses and directs the Secretary of the Interior to take a number of actions including expanding opportunities for these priority uses, particularly for families, and providing these uses on a more timely basis when new lands are added to the system.
Finally, and most importantly, it recognizes a stewardship and trusteeship on the part of the Secretary of the Interior to ensure that the biological integrity and environmental health of the refuge system are maintained for the benefit of present and future generations.
In announcing the Executive Order, "Management and General Public Use of the National Wildlife Refuge System," President Clinton praised the visionary and non-partisan actions that created and have nurtured the refuge system throughout its history:
"Presidents and Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, all have had several things in common: a love of the outdoors, a respect for the natural world, and a commitment to conservation.
"The history of the National Wildlife Refuge System is a story of untiring effort and timeless contributions from legions of dedicated individuals and of government serving its people. Collectively, these efforts have culminated in what is unquestionably the largest and most outstanding wildlife conservation program in the world."
Throughout its history, the system has been plagued by misconceptions about its purpose, mission, and appropriate public uses. In commenting on the Order, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said, "From this day forward, there can be no doubt that the core mission and first obligation of the National Wildlife Refuge System is the conservation of wildlife habitat.
"There should also be no doubt that wildlife-dependent recreational activities, when compatible with the purposes for which a refuge was established, should be recognized as priority general public uses within the refuge system. In particular, compatible hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation are especially recognized in this Executive Order," he said.
Babbitt said the Executive Order is, ". . . a clear statement of the Administration's commitment to a strong and vibrant National Wildlife Refuge System as it approaches the 21st Century and its own centennial. Our commitment is also reflected in the $10 million increase requested in the President's budget for fiscal year 1997. This increase and the Executive Order are the beginning of a refuge system renaissance," he said.
In addition to articulating the mission, priority uses, and guiding principles for the National Wildlife Refuge System, the Executive Order also directs the Secretary of the Interior to:
The National Wildlife Refuge System is the world's most outstanding network of lands and waters dedicated to wildlife. Its lands of incredible beauty and diversity stretch from the icy north coast of Alaska to the balmy Florida Keys and to tropical islands in the Caribbean and Central Pacific. It is home to diverse wildlife, including some of the most endangered species such as the whooping crane.
"The refuge system offers a richness of wild places unmatched in the world, providing a heritage that Americans of all ages should treasure and perpetuate," Secretary Babbitt said.
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