H.R. 4722 Lake Erie Basin International Wildlife Refuge Establishment Act

Barry Stieglitz

Testimony of Barry Stieglitz, Deputy Chief, Division of Conservation Planning and Policy, National Wildlife Refuge System, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior, before the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife Conservation and Oceans of the House Committee on Resources, regarding H.R. 4722 Lake Erie Basin International Wildlife Refuge Establishment Act

July 18, 2002

Mr. Chairman, and members of the subcommittee, I am Barry Stieglitz, Deputy Chief of the Division of Conservation Planning and Policy for the National Wildlife Refuge System. I appreciate this opportunity to provide the Administration's views on H.R. 4722, authorizing the establishment of the Lake Erie Basin International Wildlife Refuge. Before stating our views on this legislation, I would like to give you a brief summary of Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) involvement in the Lake Erie region.

Coastal wetlands within the western basin of Lake Erie are of significant importance to fish and wildlife trust resources. These wetlands provide spawning, nursery, and rearing habitat for some 43 wetland-dependent fish species, 26 of which have significant recreational, commercial, or prey value. More than 325 species of birds can be found in the western Lake Erie basin, and the area annually attracts hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl. The area is also an important staging area for migrant songbirds. Recognizing these important resources, the State of Ohio established numerous State wildlife areas, nature preserves, and parks in this region.

The Service is active in efforts to protect/restore coastal wetlands within this geographic area and we realize the economic, recreational, and environmental benefits of protecting and restoring the coastal wetlands of Lake Erie. In fact, we have four existing refuges in the general area. These refuges are the Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Ottawa NWR, West Sister Island NWR, and the recently established Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 requires the Service to develop a comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) for each refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The CCP describes the desired future conditions of a refuge and provides long-range guidance and management direction to achieve refuge purposes. It is during this process that expansion of a refuge is considered and recommended, if increasing the size will help fulfill the purpose(s) for which the refuge was established. Development of a CCP provides a forum for meaningful public participation and improved coordination with the states and local communities. It also affords local citizens an opportunity to help shape future management of a refuge, recognizing the important role of refuges in nearby communities.

We are now preparing a draft CCP for the newly established Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, which will include review of the Michigan portion of the proposed Lake Erie Basin International Wildlife Refuge.

In 2000, we completed a CCP for the Ottawa NWR Complex, which includes Cedar Point, Ottawa and West Sister Island NWRs. After extensive public review and comment, this CCP included an existing 1994 proposal to increase the size of the refuge complex by a total of 5,000 acres, by adding high-priority wetland habitat areas in Lucas, Sandusky, Ottawa, and Erie Counties, the same general geographic area as the Ohio portion of the proposed Lake Erie Basin International Wildlife Refuge.

In contrast to the existing 5,000-acre expansion, H.R. 4722 would commit the Service to a massive expansion of the Refuge System in the same area. [The map referenced in the bill covers approximately x hundred thousand acres. OR, if we do not have the map referenced in the bill and thus cannot guestimate the acreage, say: While we have not seen the map referenced in the bill, the geographic scope of the proposal includes over x miles of coastline and an undetermined distance inland, potentially covering hundreds of thousands of acres.] [use this also in the conclusion, next page below]

The Administration is committed to taking better case of what we have, while ensuring that new acquisitions truly meet strategic needs of the Refuge System in behalf of the American people. There must be a better balance between acquiring new lands and meeting the operational, maintenance, and restoration requirements of the resources already in public ownership than has been the case in the past. Towards this end, the Service is currently developing a plan to guide future growth and land acquisition for the Refuge System.

Establishing new refuges, or significantly expanding existing ones requires shifting operation and maintenance funds from existing refuges. While the President's FY03 budget proposes a funding increase for the Refuge System of more than $56 million, that money is already committed to high-priority needs at existing refuges.

This Administration is committed to taking care of what we have. We have identified $1.1 billion in refuge operational needs and $663 million in pending maintenance projects for the Refuge System. Currently, the Ottawa, Cedar Point, and Sister Point NWRs have 100 deferred maintenance projects in our Maintenance Management System at a combined cost of $4.9 million, and 12 projects, totaling $1.5 million, in our priority Tier 1 Refuge Operational Needs System.

We estimate that it will cost $267,000 per year for 10 years for biological survey and habitat restoration on the 5,000-acre expansion proposed by the Ottawa CCP, plus approximately $9.2 million to purchase the remaining land. We anticipate large but currently unknown restoration costs for land which might be acquired at the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. There is no authorization amount included in H.R. 4722, but we would anticipate very large acquisition costs. While we recognize that not all lands within the map area would be acquired, lakefront and lake-access property is none-the-less quite expensive.

We appreciate that Representative Kaptur and her constituents seek to have the Fish and Wildlife Service expand its role in the Lake Erie Basin. However, given our recent and impending reviews of habitat needs for Federal trust species in this area, we cannot support H.R. 4722.

In additional to the national priorities and funding constraints discussed above, we have already evaluated a major portion of this area, and are in the process of evaluating the remainder. After a careful review of the Ohio portion of the land covered by this bill, we have concluded, after public comment, that a 5,000-acre expansion of Refuge System holdings is all that is needed. This review, incidently, was concluded in the prior Administration. We are now initiating such a review of the Michigan lands covered by this legislation through the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge CCP.

H.R. 4722, in contrast, would expand the Refuge System by [insert from above]. Given that we less than 2 years ago concluded that such a large-scale expansion in this area was not needed, we cannot support it now.

We note that other opportunities and tools beside including lands in the Refuge System exist for protecting resources in Lake Erie's Western Basin. Service programs such as Partners for Fish and Wildlife, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the Landowner Incentive Program, and Private Stewardship Grants can be used in cooperation with State, local and private partners to restore and protect natural resources. The States of Ohio and Michigan also receive funds through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration, Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration, and, if approved by Congress, Land and Water Conservation Fund grants through the National Park Service which could be used towards this end if the States so chose.

This concludes my proposed statement. I would be pleased to respond to any questions you may have.

Disclaimer: All statements are not the opinions or position of those testifying, rather they are the official positions taken by the Administration.