The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 represents a consensus among diverse constituencies with interests in the management and use of the Refuge System. Negotiations leading to its development involved Interior Department Secretary Bruce Babbitt; the legislation's sponsors, including Representatives Don Young, John Dingell, Jim Saxton, George Miller, John Tanner, Neil Abercrombie, Randy Cunningham and Bob Clement, and Senators John Chafee, Dirk Kempthorne and Bob Graham; and representatives of National Audubon Society, Wildlife Legislative Fund, International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wildlife Management Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Act's main components improve the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 by amending it to include a unifying mission for the Refuge System, a new process for determining compatible uses of refuges, and a requirement for preparing comprehensive conservation plans. This Act states first and foremost that the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System be focused singularly on wildlife conservation.


  • The legislation establishes a strong and singular conservation mission for the National Wildlife Refuge System:

"To administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans."

Administration of the System

  • The legislation requires the Secretary of the Interior to ensure that the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System and purposes of the individual refuges are carried out. It also requires the Secretary to maintain the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of the Refuge System.

  • The legislation clearly states that each refuge shall be managed to fulfill both the mission of the Refuge System and the individual refuge purposes. This serves to underscore that the fundamental mission of the Refuge System is wildlife conservation.

  • The legislation further recognizes that wildlife-dependent recreational uses involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation as the priority public uses of the Refuge System. These uses are legitimate and appropriate public uses where compatible with the Refuge System mission and the individual refuge purposes. These priority public uses are dependent upon healthy wildlife populations, and if the refuges are managed well, these priority public uses will in turn prosper into the future. The legislation also states that these priority public uses receive enhanced consideration over other uses in planning and management.

Compatibility Standards

  • The legislation clearly and strongly states that no refuge use may be allowed unless it is first determined to be compatible. A compatible use is defined as a use that, in the sound professional judgment of the Director (read refuge manager), will not materially interfere with or detract from the fulfillment of the mission of the system or the purposes of the refuge. Sound professional judgment is further defined as a decision that is consistent with principles of fish and wildlife management and administration, available science and resources, and adherence with law.

  • The legislation requires that final regulations establishing the process for determining whether a use of a refuge is compatible shall be in place within 24 months after passage of this bill. It also specifies that an opportunity for public review and comment must be made available for each compatibility determination unless an opportunity for public review has already been provided during the development or revision of a comprehensive conservation plan.

  • The legislation also states that compatibility determinations in existence on the date of enactment of the legislation shall remain in effect until and unless modified.

Comprehensive Conservation Planning

  • The legislation requires that a comprehensive conservation plan (currently know as comprehensive management plan) be in place for each national wildlife refuge within 15 years after passage of this bill and the plans must be revised at least every 15 years.

  • The legislation requires that an opportunity for active public involvement be made available during the preparation and revision of comprehensive conservation plans.

Other provisions

  • The legislation authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to temporarily suspend or allow any activity in a refuge if the Secretary determines it is necessary to protect the health and safety of the public or any wildlife population.

  • If any conflict arises between any provision of this Act and any provision of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, then the provision in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act shall prevail.

Public Law 105-57 (PDF) signed into law on October 9, 1997, the revised Refuge Administration Act - 16USC668dd, the House Report of the bill and questions and answers about the legislation.