Refuge System Growth Plan Marred by Blind Spots
Sea-Level Rise and Per-Acre Price Not Factored into Land Acquisition Formula
Washington, DC — The new plan for expanding the National Wildlife Refuge System fails to compensate for sea-level rise or factor in soaring land prices, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is spending and will continue to spend too much to buy “unsuitable lands” with eroding habitat value.
On January 30, 2014, the Service unveiled its “draft Strategic Growth Policy for the National Wildlife Refuge System” for public comment through today. That plan focuses on obtaining “priority conservation features” but does not explicitly factor in either cost considerations or integrate available information on sea-level rise. Citing the agency’s own documents, the PEER comments highlight shortcomings such as –
- “We sometimes pay high prices for unsustainable lands”;
- Soon, “the Refuge System will need more coastal property to replace coastal ecosystems lost to sea-level rise” but has no overall plan to address this cycle; and
- One major barrier to prudent planning is that the main land acquisition priority system used by the Service does not even take the price of land into account.
This is especially significant since, as one briefing paper notes, sea-level rise is “threatening our 159 coastal refuges” – more than a fourth of all refuges. But the Service has yet to integrate models of climate change impacts, such as the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (or SLAMM), into coastal refuge plans. These models could also factor into forecasting populations of target species, such as migratory birds.
“The Service repeatedly uses the term ‘Strategic’ but its plan seems bereft of any real strategy other than growth,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who obtained the internal memos under the Freedom of Information Act. “In the Service’s plan, climate change is treated like the weather – everybody talks about it but nobody really does anything about it.”
The failure to factor price into land acquisition decisions further hampers strategic investment to compensate for the effects of rising sea-levels. Internal briefing papers indicate that factoring in land costs could increase the total land area that could be devoted to wildlife conservation while both maximizing the overall conservation value and stretching shrinking acquisition budgets. In addition, as real estate market values drop along besieged coastlines, refuge purchases of devalued lands could provide “storm and surge protection to adjacent inland communities,” suggested another memo.
“By ignoring economic realities of real estate, the Service ultimately shortchanges the ecological value it can deliver,” added Ruch, who wrote Fish & Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe in January 2012 urging that cost be formally included in the agency’s Land Acquisition Priority Systems but Ashe never replied. “Other federal agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Reclamation, as well as land conservancies already factor land prices into their acquisition systems – why doesn’t the Fish & Wildlife Service?”