Refuge Planning
Northeast Region

What are Compatibility Determinations?

Fishing Event at Cape May NWR. Credit: USFWS
Credit: USFWS
       Fishing Event at Cape May NWR.

Compatibility determinations are documents written, signed and dated by the refuge manager and the regional chief of refuges that signify whether proposed or existing uses of national wildlife refuges are compatible with their establishing purposes and the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System. All recreational activities and economic or other uses of a refuge by the public or other non-Service entity require compatibility determinations, which must include our analysis of all facilities, structures and improvements associated with the uses. Economic uses must also contribute to achieving refuge purposes and the mission of the

Refuge System. Compatibility determinations are not required for such refuge management activities as scientific studies or surveys, historic preservation, law enforcement, or the maintenance of refuge management facilities, structures, or improvements.

We reevaluate compatibility determinations for existing wildlife-dependent recreational uses when we prepare or revise a comprehensive conservation plan, or every 15 years, whichever is sooner. We reevaluate other uses every 10 years or sooner, if conditions change or significant new information about the use or its effects becomes available.

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The Process

What is the compatibility policy?
Refuge managers will not permit a new use of a national wildlife refuge or expand, renew, or extend an existing use unless they have determined that it is compatible. The final policy and regulations required by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 help us manage refuge lands sensibly and ensure that "Wildlife Comes First."

What is a compatible use of a national wildlife refuge?
A compatible use is any proposed or existing wildlife-dependent recreational use or other use of a national wildlife refuge that, based on our sound professional judgment, will not materially interfere with or detract from fulfilling the mission of the Refuge System or the purposes of the refuge.

Who determines whether a use is compatible, and what is the process?
The refuge managers determine whether a proposed or existing use is subject to the compatibility standard. Based on their sound professional judgment, they then determine whether the use is compatible. They document the compatibility determination in writing, and publish it for public review and comment. Following the public review and comment period, the manager refers the compatibility determination to the regional chief of the Refuge System for concurrence, after which the compatibility determination is final.

What uses require compatibility determinations?
Compatibility determinations are required for all refuge recreational and educational programs and the construction or expansion of recreational and educational facilities such as boardwalks and boat ramps. Compatibility determinations are also required for management activities performed by private parties in return for a market commodity, such as cooperative farming to provide food for wildlife, and for granting or modifying rights-of-way through refuges for pipelines, roads, or electrical transmission lines.

Compatibility determinations are not required for such refuge management activities as prescribed burning, managing water levels, controlling invasive species, routine scientific monitoring, studies, surveys, and censuses, conducting historic preservation or law enforcement activities, or maintaining refuge facilities, structures, or improvements.

When will we make compatibility determinations?

Wildlife Observation
Credit: USFWS
       Wildlife Observation.

In consultation with the public, we must develop or revise a comprehensive conservation plan for ever y national wildlife refuge by 2012. We encourage our refuge managers to write compatibility determinations for existing and foreseeable public uses during that process, and that is when most compatibility determinations are written.

We must reevaluate compatibility determinations for priority public uses—hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation—every 15 years, and for all other uses every 10 years.

If we determine that a proposed use is compatible, will we allow it?
Not necessarily: determining that a use is compatible does not require us to allow it. We base our decisions on whether to allow otherwise compatible uses on compliance with other laws, the mission of the Refuge System, refuge purposes, the availability of resources to manage the use, possible conflicts with other uses, public safety, and other administrative policies. Usually, however, refuge managers will assess those factors before writing a compatibility determination.

Will we provide opportunities for the public to review and comment on compatibility determinations?
Yes. An opportunity for public review and comment is required for every compatibility determination. Most are part of the refuge comprehensive conservation plan, which provides for extensive public review and comment. For those prepared separately from that plan, we will provide appropriate notice to the public and seek comment depending on the complexity, controversy, and the level of affect of the use on the refuge.

Will we make a use compatible through the replacement of lost habitat values or other compensatory mitigation?
We will not allow compensatory mitigation to make a proposed refuge use compatible, except by the replacement of lost habitat values for maintenance of an existing right-of-way, including minor expansion or minor realignment to meet safety standards. Examples of minor expansion or minor realignment include the following: expand the width of a road shoulder to reduce the angle of the slope; expand the area for viewing oncoming traffic at an intersection; realign a curved section of a road to improve visibility. Examples of the replacement of lost habitat values include the following: acquire additional habitat for the refuge, restore degraded wetlands elsewhere on the refuge, or remove exotic vegetation.

Can compatibility determinations be appealed?
Anyone, at any time, may present information on an existing, proposed, or denied use to the refuge manager. That information may cause us to reevaluate a use for its compatibility, but no administrative mechanism exists for appealing a determination.

Does the compatibility policy affect private lands?
No. The compatibility policy does not apply to private property within or adjacent to refuge boundaries, and does not affect or change the terms of conservation easements and other agreements between the Service and private landowners.

Last updated: December 21, 2011