National Wildlife Refuge System

Statement on Signing the National Wildlife Refuge System
Improvement Act of 1997, October 9, 1997

Administration of William J. Clinton, 1997 / Oct. 9

[Page 1535]

I am pleased to sign today H.R. 1420, the "National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997." This Act will strengthen and improve our National Wildlife Refuge System as we enter the 21st century. It embodies the principle that whether they cast a line, pitch a decoy, or click a shutter, the 30 million Americans who annually visit and enjoy our refuges have one common and enduring interest—the conservation of fish, wildlife, and their habitat. That is what the National Wildlife Refuge System is about and that is what this Act will promote and ensure.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is the world’s greatest system of lands dedicated to the conservation of fish and wildlife. It is a system founded in faith; a belief that in a country as bountiful and diverse as ours, there ought to be special places that are set aside exclusively for the conservation of fish and wildlife resources. These special places are National Wildlife Refuges where the conservation needs of wildlife are paramount.

Key provisions of H.R. 1420 mirror those of Executive Order 12996, Management and General Public Use of the National Wildlife Refuge System, which I signed in March 1996. These provisions include the mission statement for the Refuge System, the designation of priority public uses, and a requirement that the environmental health of the Refuge System be maintained.

The bill maintains the crucial distinction clearly set forth in my Executive order between wildlife conservation as the dominant 1536 Oct. 9 / Administration of William J. Clinton, 1997 refuge goal and compatible wildlife-dependent recreation as a priority public use. Wildlife conservation is the purpose of the refuges. The opportunity for compatible recreational uses are the important benefits that flow from this purpose. This bill recognizes that the use of refuge lands and waters, to the extent that such use can be allowed, shall be reserved first to those recreational activities that depend and thrive on abundant populations of fish and wildlife.

The bill also maintains the strict policy, first established by the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, that all refuge uses must be compatible with the primary purpose or purposes for which the refuge was established. It sets up a sensible, consistent, and public process for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s managers to follow in making compatibility determinations, and it adopts the Fish and Wildlife Service’s longstanding regulatory standard for compatibility.

The bill reiterates the specific categories of wildlife-dependent recreation found in Executive Order 12996 that are to be considered as the "priority public uses" for the refuge system: hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation. Where compatible, refuge managers are to provide increased opportunities for these uses and enhance the attention they receive in refuge management and planning.

Finally, H.R. 1420 maintains the historic Refuge System policy that refuges are "closed until open." That is, in order to ensure that wildlife needs come first, existing refuge lands and waters are closed to public uses until they are specifically opened for such uses. Also as provided in Executive Order 12996, the bill establishes a new process for identifying compatible wildlife-dependent recreational activities prior to the acquisition of new refuge areas, thereby avoiding the temporary closure of ongoing compatible recreational activities.

This bill is the result of extensive negotiations by my Administration, the Congress, and environmental and sportmen’s groups. Starting from widely differing positions, they worked intensively to reach the compromise reflected in this legislation. The bill is proof that when there is a shared commitment to do what is right for our natural resources, partisan and ideological differences can be set aside and compromises can be negotiated for the benefit of the common good. It is clearly the most significant conservation legislation to emerge from this Congress to date.

I hope and trust the process by which this bill was enacted will serve as a model for future congressional action on other environmental measures.

William J. Clinton

The White House,
October 9, 1997.

NOTE: H.R. 1420, approved October 9, was assigned Public Law No. 105–57.

Last updated: October 20, 2008