The oversight hearing examined whether the law has lived up to its goals to oversee and improve management of the refuges. Signed into law by President Clinton in 1997, the bill created an "organic act" to oversee management of the refuges for the first time.
Last April, a coalition of conservation groups including Audubon issued a report saying the nation's wildlife refuge system is operating at half the budget it needs. The groups also said that the wildlife refuge system is threatened by invasive species, habitat fragmentation, global warming; all of which are exacerbated by chronic under-funding.
Millions of migratory birds and hundreds of endangered species rely on the United States' more than 545 national wildlife refuges and thousands of waterfowl production areas. Over 39 million people visit units of the National Wildlife Refuge System each year, according to the Interior Department.
Excerpted below is some of Ms. Browner's testimony. Her full statement is at www.audubon.org/campaign/browner_testimony.html
"Unfortunately, despite its value and importance, for decades the Refuge System has been under-appreciated, under-funded, and under-prioritized. Its tremendous potential, to be the bedrock of ecosystem protection in the country, and to be a driver of habitat protection in the larger landscape surrounding the refuges, has gone largely unrealized. In many ways, refuges have been passive recipients of a wide range of environmental threats, places where destructive activities were too often permitted, and where ecosystems were too often degraded by broader landscape-level threats such as invasive species, limited water supplies, and pollution.
"In 1997, the Congress sent a strong signal that the era of under-appreciation, rampant unaddressed threats, and unrealized potential was coming to an end. The passage of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, with unanimous bipartisan support in the House and Senate, for the first time gave the Refuge System a clear mandate to promote wildlife conservation above other uses, widely known as the 'wildlife first' mission of the system. The Improvement Act also gave refuges powerful tools to begin to tackle unaddressed threats and to manage the system with an ecosystem approach.
"Ten years after passage of this landmark legislation, however, implementation of several key requirements is grossly inadequate."