Eric Alvarez clearly knows his way around what he calls the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conservation estate.
As he discusses land acquisition, he exudes passion for the mission. He tosses out surprising numbers, arcane real estate terms and the occasional trigonometry reference. But, mostly, he makes clear his appreciation of the contribution that nongovernmental organization land partners have made to the National Wildlife Refuge System.
I dont think we could have accomplished what weve accomplished without NGO partners, says Alvarez, chief of the Refuge System Washington office Division of Realty since 2002 and a Service realty employee since 1991. We couldnt do our job without them.
Alvarez is referring to NGOs like The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, the Trust for Public Land, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Foreverand local land trusts.
Most of the Refuge Systems 150 million acres came from the public domain (U.S. land never conveyed from federal ownership) or from other federal agencies, including the Defense Department. Since its 1903 founding, the Refuge System has purchased only 7.4 million acres. Of those purchases, 60 percent were via fee title acquisition, whereby the Service owns all or most rights to the land; 40 percent were via easements, primarily wetland, grassland and nondevelopment easements.
The NGOs help with those purchases in myriad ways.
When a landowner is unwilling or unable to deal directly with the Service, NGOs can be passthroughs. When the Service doesnt have funds and a landowner wants to sell immediately, NGOs can buy and hold the property until the Service can buy it from them. NGOs can buy land and donate it to the Service. NGOs can facilitate land exchanges. By law, the Service cant sell refuge lands, says Alvarez. However, NGOs frequently help the Service trade lowresourcevalue land for highresourcevalue land.
Alvarez ticks off recent examples of NGOs making a difference.
The Nature Conservancy, which had been working for more than a decade to restore central Florida habitat, provided a lot of the science and was the driving force behind the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Areas establishment, says Alvarez, as was the National Wildlife Refuge Association.
When the Service recently decided to direct 70 percent of Migratory Bird Conservation Fund land acquisition money to the Prairie Pothole Region, Ducks Unlimited committed to matching up to $50 million for wetland and grassland conservation. Those are nonfederal dollars, Alvarez notes.
Other examples: The Trust for Public Land buying a huge tract in New Hampshires Androscoggin River headwaters and selling it off to federal and state conservation agencies, including the Service for Umbagog Refuge. Pheasants Forever obtaining land through Minnesota state grants and donating it for Northern Tallgrass Prairie Refuge. The Nature Conservancy buying a large tract for Glacial Ridge Refuge, MN, and slowly selling it to the Service at a huge bargain price. The Conservative Fund stepping in similarly at Red River Refuge, LA, and Neches River Refuge, TX. The list goes on.
Theres the tangible impact that the NGOs have had, meaning acres that theyve bought directly and donated or facilitated the purchase of, says Alvarez. But then theres the intangible piece of it where they work with Congress and localities to get funding, help us with planning and generate goodwill in the communities.
And theres the trigonometry piece, too.
Federal budgets for land acquisition are relatively small, and they are very variable, Alvarez says. Imagine a sine wavepeaks and valleys, peaks and valleysNGOs are kind of the leveling off of that sine wave. They tend to fill in some of those valleys and, at times, add to the peaks.