photo of a grassy coastline
Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Alaska is among those refuges whose Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) has been completed in time for next year’s deadline. (Brett Billings/USFWS)

What will your national wildlife refuge look like in 15 years? When a new refuge manager arrives, how does he or she know where to begin in managing the refuge? How is the public to know the long-range plans for the refuge? Where can someone find how a refuge has been managed in the past and the goals for the future?

These are the types of questions answered through planning efforts conducted by refuge field staff and regional refuge conservation planning staffs. Historically, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service planning efforts have ebbed and flowed over time with increases and decreases of funding and staffing. However, the Service has long recognized the need for planning.

The 1957 Service Field Manual’s section on planning stated: "It should be clear that planning in the field of refuge management is a continuous process." The May 1995 National Planning Needs Assessment noted the need to "maintain ’steady state’ planning capabilities rather than relying on boom and bust staffing patterns to realize longer term-but-realistic schedules for accomplishing plans. Planning efforts are ongoing and long-term in nature."

Refuge planning was revitalized in 1997 when Congress passed the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, amending the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966.

In addition to giving the Refuge System a solid mission statement, the 1997 act, in Section 7, established the Refuge Conservation Planning Program and mandated that a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) be prepared for every refuge within 15 years. The Service embraced the act, initiating a refuge planning effort unlike anything else in the history of the agency. Planning capability was greatly expanded, guided by provisions in the 1997 act, with the development of a Refuge Manual planning chapter; Service handbooks such as the Preplanning Guidance for Comprehensive Conservation Plans and Writing Refuge Management Goals and Objectives; and a CCP development course at the National Conservation Training Center.

Deadline Looms

Because the 1997 act mandated that the Service complete by 2012 CCPs for all 554 refuges and wetland management districts then in existence, regional planners and field staff have been scrambling to meet deadline. Completion of the plans has a been a joint effort involving staff from the Refuge System, Fisheries, Migratory Birds, Ecological Services, states and tribes as well as the public. As of June 2011, 406 units had completed CCPs, 397 of them required by the 1997 act. CCPs were underway for an additional 133 units; 24 required CCPs had yet to be started. The delays are a result of staff shortages, turnover, funding shortfalls and the need to address time-consuming contentious issues.

Nonetheless, the Service is enjoying the fruits of the first round of completed CCPs at refuges nationwide. Local and regional planning efforts have resulted in more public awareness of and involvement in Refuge System activities as well as clear, science-based management direction and vision consistent with Service goals for improving, expanding or maintaining wildlife and habitat conditions, and providing for enhanced visitor experiences.

"CCPs let us look at the future, the management and the accomplishments of the refuge with our partners and the public" in a comprehensive context, says Paul Steblein, a former refuge manager who is now a Refuge System critical issues analyst. CCPs enable refuges to work through complex, often controversial wildlife and habitat issues with input of the local community in a way that clarifies refuge management policy and objectives. They serve as authoritative guideposts for the Refuge System and the public.

And the first round is just the beginning. The next round of CCPs will include more green-infrastructure planning and coordinated efforts with Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.

Thomas Larson is chief of the Midwest Region’s Division of Conservation Planning.