photo of hikers walking over a hilly field toward a lake
Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge North DakotaJennifer Jewett/USFWS

Nearly 240 bold ideas were put forth. They gathered more than 10,000 comments. And, over a 60–day public comment period this spring, the Conserving the Future draft vision document garnered 9,500 comments online at or via e–mail. Little wonder, then, that the vision document for the National Wildlife Refuge System has changed dramatically from its iteration some months ago.

The document being discussed in Madison, WI, July 11–14 is far shorter than that version. It contains about two dozen recommendations—as compared with almost 100 earlier—and makes clear ties to the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997. It organizes recommendations around several broad concepts, including strategic growth, science and wildlife management; increasing a conservation constituency; and enhancing leadership opportunities for employees and potential employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Building on Fulfilling the Promise, the guiding document adopted in 1999, the new vision stresses that the Refuge System will continue to be a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, providing an enduring legacy of healthy lands and waters managed in accordance with a 21stcentury adaption of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic.

It notes that the Refuge System, in carrying out its “wildlife first” mission, must use a landscape–level approach that focuses on science and environmental stressors to protect, restore and manage conservation lands and waters.

At the same time, the document recommends that landscape–scale habitat management be strengthened by a “beyond the boundaries” approach that leverages resources through partnerships with other government agencies, conservation groups and private landowners.

The vision document emphasizes that the Refuge System will continue to grow strategically by protecting ecosystems in concert with the efforts of conservation partners. The overriding vision establishes that national wildlife refuges are valued elements of local communities, cherished places for people to connect with nature and to learn about and assist in conservation stewardship.

“The vision document you see here in Madison is vastly different than earlier versions—and that’s in direct response to the comments we heard,” said Cynthia Martinez, chief of the Refuge System Division of Visitor Services and Communications. “We heard that the draft document was too long, that its 98 recommendations were far too many, and that many of the recommendations were not visionary, but rather implementation steps. So we brought the vision document to the visionary level—to that 30,000–foot level of broad concepts that will truly guide the Refuge System for the next decade or so.”

In its very first recommendation, the document calls for an interagency team to develop a national collaborative conservation strategy that grows both the conservation estate and the conservation constituency. The document also:

  • Calls for development of a research agenda for the Refuge System.
  • Envisions that every wildlife refuge fully implement the principles of adaptive management. The Refuge System recently established a national program to inventory and monitor wildlife and habitats with the goal of providing baseline information and informing planning and management decisions.
  • Seeks improved communications to inform Americans about the benefits of the Refuge System’s conservation mission.
  • Envisions a day when every wildlife refuge has a community partner. Today, 230 Refuge Friends organizations exist nationwide to work on behalf of individual refuges or, in the case of Alaska, for refuges statewide.
  • Recommends development of an urban refuge program that evaluates how existing refuges close to big cities—such as Minnesota Valley and Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuges—have achieved excellence. The program also would work to expand partnerships with local parks and others to increase awareness of the Refuge System and the nation’s land ethic.
  • Supports enhanced appropriate recreation, including updating relevant policies and infrastructure where needed.

The final vision document is scheduled to be available in October at