Conservation Planning & Policy
Alaska Region   

The Process

What is the compatibility policy?
The refuge manager will not initiate or permit a new use of a national wildlife refuge nor expand, renew, or extend an existing use of a national wildlife refuge unless the refuge manager has determined that the use is a compatible use. A compatible use is one that does not materially interfere with or detract from the fulfillment of the National Wildlife Refuge System mission or the purposes of the refuge in question.

The final policy and regulations were required by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 and are intended to help the Service manage its lands sensibly with the general goal of putting wildlife first.

What is a compatibility determination?
A compatibility determination is a written determination, signed and dated by the refuge manager and the regional chief of refuges, signifying that a proposed or existing use of a national wildlife refuge is or is not a compatible use.

Who makes a compatibility determination, and what is the standard?
Based on their sound professional judgment, refuge managers determine whether a proposed or existing use of a national wildlife refuge would "materially interfere with or detract from" the fulfillment of the National Wildlife Refuge System mission or the purposes of the individual refuge. Refuge managers receive approval from the regional chief on all compatibility determinations.

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

Compatibility determinations are not required for refuge management activities such as prescribed burning; water-level management; invasive species control; routine scientific monitoring, studies, surveys, and censuses; historic preservation activities; law enforcement activities; and maintenance of existing refuge facilities, structures, and improvements.

When will compatibility determinations be made?
Most compatibility determinations will be made during the development of the refuge's comprehensive conservation plan. Every national wildlife refuge will develop or revise one of these plans in consultation with the public by 2012, and we encourage refuges to make compatibility determinations for all existing public uses and any foreseeable future uses during this process.

Compatibility determinations must be re-evaluated every 15 years for priority public uses (hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation) and every 10 years for all other uses.

If a proposed use is determined to be compatible, will it be allowed?
Not necessarily, a determination that a use is compatible does not require the use to be allowed. Determinations on whether to allow otherwise compatible uses are based on compliance with other laws, the System mission, policy, refuge purposes, availability of resources to manage the use, possible conflicts with other uses, public safety, and other administrative factors. Usually, however, a refuge manager will make this decision prior to making a compatibility determination and completing one will be unnecessary.

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Will the Service provide opportunities for public review and comment for compatibility determinations?
Yes, an opportunity for public review and comment is required for all compatibility determinations. Most compatibility determinations will be made as part of the preparation of the refuge's comprehensive conservation plan, which provides for extensive public and notice and comment. For compatibility determinations prepared separately from a plan, we will provide appropriate notice to the public and seek comment depending on the complexity, controversy, and level of impact to the refuge.

Will the Service make a use compatible through replacement of lost habitat values or other compensatory mitigation?
We will not allow compensatory mitigation to make a proposed refuge use compatible, except by 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 replacement of lost habitat values include the following: acquisition of additional habitat for the refuge, the restoration of degraded wetlands elsewhere on the refuge, or the removal of exotic vegetation.

Can compatibility determinations be appealed?
Anyone, at any time, may present relevant information on an existing, proposed, or denied use to the refuge manager; this information may cause us to re-evaluate a use for compatibility, but there is no administrative mechanism to appeal a compatibility determination.

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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.

There is one exception to this: some private lands within the boundaries of refuges in Alaska are handled differently.

Why are some lands in Alaska handled differently?
Under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, some village corporations chose to settle their aboriginal land claims by selecting land within the boundaries of national wildlife refuges in Alaska. Section 22(g) of that act stipulates that these lands are subject to compatibility except as otherwise provided in regulation. We prepare compatibility determinations in a substantially different manner for the 22(g) lands in recognition of the unique status of these lands and the fact that we are implementing a provision of a patent:

  • Proposed uses will be evaluated against how they would impact adjacent refuge lands, not how they would impact the 22(g) lands.
  • Compatibility determinations will only be prepared once and revised only when the use changes significantly; they will not be reviewed every 10 or 15 years as is true for most refuge lands.
  • The option to appeal to the Service's Alaska Regional Director is available to 22(g) landowners should a refuge manager determine that a proposed use is not compatible.

Last updated: September 2, 2008

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