Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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Remarks Prepared for Delivery By the Honorable Gale Norton Secretary of the Interior

Celebration in Riverview Park
March 14, 2003

Good afternoon. Isn't this an awesome display?

It is heartwarming that so many nature enthusiasts could join us today to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System. I am especially delighted to see that so many retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffers and their families could join us.

My thanks to the Fish and Wildlife Service employees and distinguished members of the Refuge Centennial Commission who have provided leadership for this event.

The Department of the Interior is pleased that the Postal Service chose to honor Pelican Island with this commemorative stamp.

As the nation's first National Wildlife Refuge, Pelican Island is one of three firsts to be celebrated this year by commemorative stamps. The other two include the first controlled, powered airplane flight and the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall.

The site of the first airplane flight is now the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, a Park Service facility.

Hey, two out of three for the Interior Department is not bad.

Postal Service officials have called the commemorative stamp program "a window into our nation's soul," and that description is certainly apt when it comes to Pelican Island and the National Wildlife Refuge System.


When Teddy Roosevelt declared Pelican Island the nation's first federal bird reserve in 1903, the fate of the natural world in the United States was at a critical juncture. The 19th Century had been a time of tremendous contrasts.

For example, one visitor to Pelican Island described it as "draped in white, its trees seemingly covered with snow." The "snow" was in fact the downy young pelicans, egrets, Ibises and other wading birds that nested atop the mangrove trees.

Another visitor to Pelican Island, Dr. James Henshall, described one of his trips in an essay published in 1884 under the title, "Pelican Island ­ Slaughter of the Innocents."

"As we passed, we saw a party of northern tourists at the island, shooting down the harmless birds by the scores through mere wantonness," Dr. Henshall wrote. "As volley after volley came booming over the water, we felt quite disgusted at the useless slaughter..."


For the most part, we have moved beyond these contrasts ­ the stunning abundance of nature on one hand and its wanton destruction on the other.

Today, there are both federal laws that protect our nation's flora and fauna, and the National Wildlife Refuge System.

By the time Theodore Roosevelt left office, Pelican Island and 50 other federal bird reserves had been established, along with four national game preserves.

Today, our nation's 540 National Wildlife Refuges cover an area of 95 million acres. To put that in perspective, if they were all gathered together they would equal an area twice the size of Florida.

More than 50 National Wildlife Refuges were established specifically to protect endangered or threatened species.

The system has been instrumental in the recovery of threatened species including the whooping crane and the Aleutian Canada goose.

Many National Wildlife Refuges are strategically located along the nation's four major migratory flyways ­ to provide convenient stopping points for birds that travel hundreds or even thousands of miles in search of food and breeding grounds.

Refuges also teem with plants, insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and other animals.

But they aren't just for animals and plants. National Wildlife Refuges provide unparalleled outdoor activities: fishing, environmental education, wildlife observation and photography ­ making them peaceful places for all Americans to connect with nature. Many refuges also offer opportunities for nature hikes, bird tours, wildlife drives and other activities—including hunting.

The depredations by market hunters may have been the catalyst that created the wildlife refuge system. But the President who created the first refuge was an avid hunter.

Hunters and anglers have been some of our biggest partners in securing our conservation efforts.

Hunters rallied during the Great Depression to save wetlands for waterfowl. They were appalled by the destruction of wildlife and habitat that was a part of the Dust Bowl. For the first time ever in history, a group went to Congress and essentially said, "tax us." They asked for the Duck Stamp program—and now any hunter who wants to hunt waterfowl must buy a federal duck stamp.

This self-imposed tax has brought in more than $600 million and purchased more than 5 million acres of land for refuges.

The future of the National Wildlife Refuge System looks bright.

President Bush has been extremely supportive. In the last two years, he has proposed increases totaling $80 million in the Refuge System's operating budget. If enacted by Congress, this would more than double the refuge system's budget from 1997.


But we also have specific challenges ahead for the refuge system.

National Wildlife Refuges receive a helping hand each year from almost 40,000 volunteers, who dedicate their talents and their energy to refuges all across the country. I have said before, we couldn't do the job we do without our volunteers.

They take on all the jobs from helping with invasive species to guiding our many visitors and answering their questions.

More than 35 million people visit National Wildlife Refuges annually, and there is at least one refuge within an hour's drive of most major cities.

This means refuges give urban children a chance to see and learn about nature.

The danger to refuges in the next century is if people lose touch with wildlife and the natural world. Too often children are watching animals only on television and playing in the woods or forest only in video games.

Visiting refuges allows kids to connect to a real world with conservation values—which is critical for the future.

Another critical element for the future is to turn citizens into stewards of the land. We need to look at conservation with a holistic modern approach. Americans should be partners in the preservation of our lands and our natural resources.

I believe that most Americans are ready and willing to step up to that challenge. We see it everyday with the many volunteers I mentioned, who come forward to help with refuges and parks.

But we also see it in our Partners for Fish and Wildlife program where individual landowners and groups voluntarily work to conserve habitat on their own property. Or they work to restore wetlands or cleanup streams. No new environmental law requires them to do this. They do it as our partners.

Private landowners, for example, have voluntarily restored 640,000 acres of wetlands, 1 million acres of upland habitat, and 4,700 miles of streams under the Partners program.

President Bush has proposed a Cooperative Conservation Initiative that allows grants to go to those private landowners to help pay for some of the work they are doing. This program will enhance our challenge grant program.

As we protect the refuges, we also need to recognize that they are interrelated with the surrounding lands. What is privately held and conserved is often just as important as what is publicly held and conserved. Better protected private lands and mitigated streambeds and wetlands improve the water flow into the refuge.

A symbiotic relationship often develops. Refuge managers in Loxahatchee have helped the surrounding private landowners with flood control. The private landowners, in turn, used their tractors to prepare the soil for new plantings to restore habitat in the refuge.

Our new environmentalism moves away from government led, command and control. It says everyone has a responsibility to honor Roosevelt's legacy in whatever way they can. New environmentalism means that we have a stake in the environmental future of our world, one acre, one stream, one person at a time.

If we do our jobs right and remain vigilant, our nation's refuges will be thriving long after we are gone. They will not only continue to provide sanctuary for our nation's flora and fauna. They will also be quiet places for our children's children to seek renewal away from the pressures and demands of their everyday lives.

In closing I believe there is a great deal to celebrate as we mark the 100th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

As a window into our nation's soul, the National Wildlife Refuge System reminds us that, our reverence for nature has evolved from the days when wanton slaughter of beautiful birds was tolerated for fashion.

It has evolved from the days of command and control environmentalism that can only come from Washington, D.C.

I believe it will evolve to a future of new environmentalism that says we are all citizen stewards of this world.

I will close with words from President Roosevelt who wrote, " lose the chance to see frigate-birds soaring in circles above the storm, or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, or a myriad of terns flashing in the bright light of midday as they hover in a shifting maze above the beach—why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time."

Our refuges assure us those masterpieces will not be lost.


Last updated: November 3, 2008