Noah Matson of Defenders of Wildlife

In his role as Refuge Program Manager for Defenders of Wildlife, Noah Matson has been both a vocal critic of and enthusiastic cheerleader for the national wildlife refuge system. Additionally, he has worked on several reports documenting problems and recommending management improvements for the system, and has lobbied Congress extensively on behalf of wildlife conservation. Matson recently spoke with E about the refuge system centennial and the challenges to American wildlife conservation moving forward…

E: What do you see as the main challenges for the national wildlife refuge system over the next hundred years?

What’s interesting about refuges is that they are a microcosm of everything else. Everything affects refuges. They’re affected by urban sprawl. They’re affected by climate change obviously. They’re affected by air pollution, water pollution. Every single environmental issue out there affects some refuge out there. And so just as if you read any predictions on the trends on those environmental issues, they will equally affect refuges in some way.

Very generally speaking, over the next century, our population is going to continue to grow, and it’s going to put more pressure on wildlife habitat and wildlife populations, and so refuges and other public lands will become some of the last remaining wildlife habitat. So how does the refuge system fit into that network, that national habitat network if you want to call it that? Our population is going to continue to grow. We’re going to keep building more and more and out farther into more remote areas. And so what’s left for wildlife is going to be what we’ve dedicated to wildlife. And so a big challenge of the refuge system is going to be how do we maintain our wildlife heritage in the face of that.

But how do we maintain that diversity of wildlife that we’ve come to enjoy and appreciate, what we consider very American, that we’re proud of? The Fish and Wildlife Service has somewhat started to grapple with this but they certainly need help from the conservation community and environmental community and everybody else to figure out how to best do this.

One of the challenges for the next century is where are the new refuges going to be. That’s a huge question. It all depends on what your goals are. If your goals are to focus on a certain handful of groups of species, that affects your decision-making versus if you’re trying to maintain a representative sample of everything. Defenders of Wildlife is obviously interested in all wildlife, not just a handful of species. So we’d like to see Fish & Wildlife really start to think about how can we maintain some semblance of our native biodiversity, for the long haul. That’s going to require them to really look hard at where protected areas are today, and where there are huge gaps in terms of wildlife habitat, ecosystems, and species protection. Where are these huge gaps that no one is protecting? Those species and habitat are going to fall through the cracks quickest. And so that should be at least one priority for the refuge system in the next century, to fill in those gaps.

Gap analysis and the national gap program will be a very important tool moving forward. Just a really quick history of that: it was the brainchild of Mike Scott, who was with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Hawaii, studying endangered Hawaiian birds. He did a really simple exercise. He put on a map the known home ranges of these endangered birds and he overlaid it with the national parks, state parks and wildlife refuges, and found that there is a complete disconnect. In fact, the birds’ entire ranges were not protected. And that really got him to thinking that we should be doing this exercise for a lot of species and that should really guide how and when – at least if one of your goals is wildlife conservation – to buy up or protect land. The guiding question should be, “Where is the wildlife?”

So from that simple exercise in Hawaii, it’s become a national program administered by the US Geological Survey’s Natural Resources Division. It’s essentially a national mapping exercise, mapping vegetation coverage using satellites as surrogates for the diversity of wildlife habitat and overlaying that with a categorization of land status, and seeing what types of habitats are under-protected. I think that’s a really important thing to look forward to in the next century, that is, really being strategic when you create new refuges.

E: Does the national wildlife refuge system have the budgetary allocations and other resources necessary to tackle these challenges? Do we have the resources to get this stuff done?

In fact, no. Defenders of Wildlife has been a major partner with the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE), which consists of a diverse groups of organizations, including national hunting, fishing and environmental organizations as well as wildlife professional/scientific organizations, like the Wildlife Society and American Fisheries Society. These groups all got together, strictly recognizing that all of our needs for the refuge system – and we definitely disagree on different policies on how refuges are managed etc. – were not being met because of funding. Currently there’s a $2 billion backlog for refuge maintenance and operations funding, and it’s crippling the refuge system.

We’ve been asking Congress for more and more money every year, and it’s been successful, we’ve been getting more and more money every year. But we’re still only halfway to our goal of $700 million a year for the refuge system. We’re talking essentially about a $350 million increase, which, to an individual person may seem like a lot, but to the federal government it’s nothing, especially when you start comparing it to other points in the budget, like the military. It’s cheaper than an Abrams tank to really make a dent in wildlife conservation.

So it’s always a struggle to get more money for the system, but we’re hopeful. Next year is the Centennial, and we’re really hoping that the celebrations will raise the visibility of the system, because a lot of people really don’t know what it is. If they’ve heard of a refuge, they think it’s like a park. And most people haven’t even heard of refuges even though there’s one in every state. It’s probably one of the most accessible systems of federal lands. So we’re really hoping to get the word out that these exist. Hopefully with that visibility will come more support for it.

E: Do you think overuse of refuge lands for recreational purposes is a major threat to the system and the wildlife it was created to protect?

We’ve seen in the last decade an explosion in interest in outdoor recreation generally, and that puts a lot of pressure on all of our public lands. And it’s a good thing. I love to recreate outdoors. It’s one of my favorite pastimes, but how do you balance that with resource protection? That will be the toughest balancing act that the Fish and Wildlife Service will have to come to grips with over the coming century. Luckily, the Fish & Wildlife Service has the strongest mandate for regulating public use. Wildlife protection is the first and foremost mission and purpose of the refuge system. It’s closed until open, as opposed to open until closed. So that gives the Fish & Wildlife Service a lot of power and leeway to make the right decisions and gives them a lot of authority to actually regulate that public use. How they do that is going to be difficult.