Since 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has acquired approximately 56.5 million acres of land and water. Roughly 54.1 million of those acres are within marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean. During that time, 38 refuges, conservation areas or wildlife management areas have been added to the National Wildlife Refuge System.

This Refuge Update Focus section looks at how a handful of them are progressing.

In recent years, the approach to new–refuge land acquisition has changed. The Service has tried to give new refuges an initial boost through higher appropriations requests, says Eric Alvarez, Refuge System Headquarters realty chief since 2002.

“I’m happy with the direction we’ve been going in the last few years, focusing additional resources on new refuges versus just putting them into the mix, as previously had been done,” Alvarez says. “It’s important not only to establish yourself in the community by having a refuge but also by being out there buying land from landowners, because neighbors talk to neighbors.”

Alvarez notes that, when it comes to establishing refuges, conservation areas are “growing in acceptance.” They are essentially easement–only refuges based on partnerships with private landowners and non–governmental organizations. They cannot be as intensely managed as fee–title land the Service owns can be, Alvarez says, but “the habitat is still protected from development and destruction.”

Six of the eight most recently established refuges include a conservation–area component.

As Alvarez looks to the future of land acquisition and refuge establishment, he sees uncertainty on one hand and guidance from Conserving the Future on the other.

“The last 40 years, we were pretty sure. The next 40 years, we are not as sure,” he says. “The Land and Water Conservation Fund is up for reauthorization in 2015. Without that reauthorization, there’s zero money appropriated for land acquisition from Congress. We would be strictly limited to our Migratory Bird Conservation Fund dollars as allocated by the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission for waterfowl refuges.”

Alvarez is optimistic reauthorization will occur, whether short–term or for another 50 years. Regardless, he says, “science is always going to drive our mission,” and the Conserving the Future strategic growth policy will provide direction.

“For the first time, the policy really narrows the land acquisition focus on migratory birds in decline, waterfowl and endangered species,” he says. “It’ll be tiering off existing plans, like endangered species plans, where land acquisition can be used as a tool for the conservation of that species.”

Still, he says, a key to establishing a new refuge is early land acquisition momentum:

“If you can only do one tract a year, you’re not connecting much with the community. In the first year if you can acquire land from 10 landowners who are willing sellers and the second year another 10, that not only helps you with community support for the Refuge System but also those landowners are voting members of the public who can be very influential in their communities and elsewhere.”