Private inholdings on a national wildlife refuge may seem trivial when the remaining 99 percent of land is refuge–owned and –protected, but that 1 percent can have a costly impact.

I say this based on my 4½ years of experience as project leader at Sheldon–Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex in southeast Oregon and northern Nevada. There, most private inholdings are 20– or 40–acre parcels whose negative impact far exceeds the potential purchase price.

All refuges are different in myriad ways, of course, but the key inholding concerns at Shelton–Hart Mountain Refuge Complex were:

Road development—Usually, we had to provide “reasonable access” to an inholding property across refuge lands. This resulted in habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, invasive species increase and the use of $10,000 to $20,000 in staff time to arrange for a right–of–way permit.

Water rights—In one case at Sheldon Refuge, an owner filed for water rights on a stream. In such a situation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must monitor the permit application and protest it promptly. We missed this one, the water rights were issued and now one of the refuge’s few perennial streams is dammed, affecting water flow and wildlife habitat.

Habitat impact—Inholding development resulted in loss of habitat (conversion from wildlife habitat to roads, houses or non–native vegetation), habitat fragmentation (breaking up the continuous habitat that most species need) and disturbance to species (frequent human activity scaring away wildlife). All of this contradicted the refuge mission—conservation of pronghorn antelope, sage–grouse and other sagebrush species.

Invasive species—The high–desert habitats were and are vulnerable to invasive species from disturbances to soils and native vegetation. Vehicle and foot traffic associated with building and using roads and houses leaves a property susceptible to invasive weeds. Such invasives are expensive to control, if controllable at all, in remote parts of a refuge.

Viewshed—The idea of a recreation property in the middle of a refuge has romantic appeal. However, creating such a utopian property for one owner often shatters the view for thousands of visitors who come to enjoy the wild landscape.

Fire risk—Fires are easily started by a hot tailpipe touching grass, a tossed cigarette or campfire embers. Occupation of remote properties increases fire risk.

Overall management—Many of the factors cited above result in increased refuge management costs, but other factors do, too. Oregon and Nevada, for instance, are fence–out states. So, if livestock are introduced by the owner, the refuge must build a fence to keep the livestock off the refuge. A 40–acre parcel would require one mile, or $12,000 worth, of fencing. If a survey is required, it would be $2,000 to $5,000 for that size property. A 40–acre parcel at Hart Mountain Refuge was bought for $9,000 not long ago. Thus, management costs can quickly outstrip a property’s value, and it would be cheaper to buy the property outright—especially because, at Hart Mountain and Sheldon Refuges at least, operations and maintenance costs generally don’t go up when inholding properties are acquired.

The good news is that the Division of Realty, with help from refuge staff and Friends of Hart Mountain, has acquired nearly 1,000 inholding acres in the past five years.

Private property owners clearly have the right to develop their inholding properties essentially as they see fit. However, there often is a significant burden to the public when they exercise that right. So, refuges should be interested in buying inholding properties from willing sellers. But when private owners choose to keep or develop their property, refuge staff must work with them to do it in a way that does the least harm to the refuge’s habitat—and to its budget.

Paul Steblein, a critical issues analyst in the Refuge System’s Division of Natural Resources and Conservation Planning, was project leader at Sheldon–Hart Mountain National Wildlife Complex from 2006 through 2010.