Short History of the Refuge System

Approaching the Centennial (1997 and on)

In 1997, Congress provided much-needed organic legislation with the passage of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act. This legislation amended the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 and provided significant new guidance for the management of the Refuge System. It provided a new statutory mission statement and directed that the Refuge System be managed as a national system of lands and waters devoted to conserving wildlife and maintaining biological integrity of ecosystems. The law also clarified management priorities by declaring that certain wildlife-dependent recreational uses are appropriate activities on refuges, strengthened the compatibility determination process, and required the Service to undertake comprehensive conservation planning for each refuge.

From the earliest years national wildlife refuges have played a major role in the evolution of resource conservation in the United States. The National Wildlife Refuge System now comprises more than 560 units in all 50 states, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Johnson Atoll, Midway Atoll and several other Pacific Islands. Refuges now encompass over 850 million acres of valuable wildlife habitat.

Included in this total are nearly l.9 million acres of wetlands in the prairie pothole region of the north-central United States. These wetlands are known as "waterfowl production areas," and have Federal protection through fee acquisition or easements. This vital habitat, together with the wetlands of the Canadian prairies and Alaska, provides the key production areas where the bulk of North America's waterfowl nest and rear their young.

Wilderness designation also helps protect diverse refuge areas including islands, lakes, forests, deserts, and mountains. Currently, 20.6 million acres of refuge lands have been designated as wilderness under provisions of the Wilderness Act of 1964. The Act states that these Congressionally-designated areas "... shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness."

The history of the Refuge System is the history of farsighted actions, untiring efforts, and generous donations from untold numbers of dedicated individuals from both government and private sectors. These individuals have recognized that our wildlife resources are an invaluable national heritage. They have collectively pressed for their protection and won, often against conflicting interests. As we approach the Refuge System's Centennial in 2003, it is a good time to reflect upon the collective efforts of these dedicated people in creating what is regarded as the largest and most outstanding wildlife conservation program in the world -- the National Wildlife Refuge System.