What is a National Wildlife Refuge?
National Wildlife Refuges provide protection of fish and wildlife habitats, and also provide managed recreation and education opportunities that focus on wildlife-related activities like hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and education. Trails for public access are usually part of the overall recreation mix.
Nationwide, there are 560 locally managed NWR units – including several in Maine (Moosehorn, Umbagog, Sunkhaze, Rachel Carson, and Coastal Islands). Each unit develops its own Comprehensive Conservation Plan to establish unit-specific goals and to guide management. This locally-focused planning and management method is very important for making sure that local and state interests are accounted for and balanced with the national concerns.
It is also important to distinguish the management powers of each refuge unit from the broader enforcement powers of its parent agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). A refuge manages its own land only – it has no authority over neighboring lands. Like other landowners, a refuge makes decisions about management of its own trees, about public recreation access on its land, and about making improvements on its land. This is very different from the activities of the enforcement branch of the USFWS, which enforces laws (such as the Endangered Species Act) based on natural habitats, not property boundaries.
For more information about the National Wildlife Refuge System in the northeast, click here.
Who might support a new High Peaks National Wildlife Refuge?
At present, the High Peaks Alliance is serving as a local clearinghouse for a public conversation about the possibility of creating a new national wildlife refuge in Franklin County’s High Peaks area. Our proposal started out as our own study of an alternative conservation strategy to permanently protect more land with public recreation access in the High Peaks backcountry. Our careful study convinces us the refuge idea has great merit and could be a good fit for the future of Franklin County. But the decision to create a new refuge is not ours to make.
In meetings during 2012 with representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and with Maine state government, we learned that the next essential step to considering a new refuge in the high peaks is to demonstrate broad local support for the idea. Unlike most land conservation projects, this one cannot happen until local people – including landowners, recreational users, business owners and others – have opportunities to learn the facts, offer suggestions, study plans, and options, and offer comments on the proposal. We are organizing public forums in local communities to help people learn more about the idea, and discuss its merits and concerns. We are providing focused presentations to local groups. We are also asking Franklin County people to write letters of support asking state and federal officials to begin the necessary Environmental Assessment and Comprehensive Conservation Planning Partnership.
When will the project move forward?
If broad local support for this idea can be demonstrated during the spring of 2013, we will then invite the USFWS to begin its own study. The first step would be public scoping meetings in which anyone can offer detailed suggestions for a future refuge. Scoping examples include: to continue an existing snowmobile or ATV trail; to enhance deer habitat with active forest management; to authorize a future refuge to seek land from willing sellers in a particular area but not in another area. After the possible scope of the project is outlined by the public, the State of Maine’s experts in wildlife, fish, forestry, recreation, and economic development would partner with USFWS to create a draft Environmental Assessment and draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan. This assessment and planning process is an important way to assure that state and local interests are well served. During this stage of the process, formal consultations could occur with Franklin County government on at least 3 focused issues – county tax issues, public recreation access, and economic development.
Once a detailed draft assessment and plan is written, the process shifts back to additional open public meetings with more opportunities for public comments, for and against. Adjustments can be made to accommodate valid public comments; alternatively, the project could be abandoned as not feasible.
A complicated project like this will take at least a year or two years to reach the key assessment and planning decision: Will a new refuge be authorized to begin acquiring land or easements? A “yes” decision will mean that broad local support has been demonstrated, and the open public scoping, state and federal expert planning, county consultations, and open public comment procedures produced a viable plan for a new refuge. The next steps would be the Congressional financial approvals (not involving tax dollars) and negotiations with willing landowners (again, eminent domain is never used to take land from an unwilling seller).
Where would a new Refuge be located?
High Peaks Alliance’s proposal is to conserve about 25,000 refuge acres in the unorganized territory of the High Peaks backcountry. It is important that everyone understand that a new refuge has to be planned before it can be created by land or easement purchases. If we move forward with an Environmental Assessment and Comprehensive Conservation Plan, it would include an “Authorized Land Acquisition Boundary Map” showing the lands that would be eligible for future refuge purchases. The eventual final locations of the refuge would depend on the future willingness of landowners to sell their land to the refuge. The public scoping, expert planning, public comment, and final draft phases of the project are all important steps in establishing the plan for the refuge, but landowners will always have the final say in the actual creation of the refuge locations. Our preliminary conversations with area landowners show there is significant interest in being included within the proposed acquisition boundary.
Why is a new National Wildlife Refuge a good conservation opportunity for the High Peaks region?
Many reasons can be advanced in support of a new NWR in the High Peaks region. Here are four important ones:
Loss of traditional public access. High Peaks Alliance’s primary concern is the gradual loss of traditional public recreation access due to postings, gating, and gradual development in the backcountry. Creating a new NWR would permanently protect traditional public access for hunting, fishing, motorized and non-motorized trails, and added features like nature trails and wildlife interpretation.
Open space for wildlife and people. As Franklin County’s economy continues to evolve from manufacturing to services, protecting open space for both wildlife and people becomes an important “quality of place” requirement for a sustainable economy. The High Peaks backcountry region has been identified as a high priority region in Franklin County for open space protection for wildlife and people, and a new NWR could be a good way to provide protection, permanently.
Strategic Land Base for Recreation and Tourism. Franklin Country’s economy includes strong forest harvesting sector everywhere, manufacturing in several locations, farming centered in the south, a strong health/education/retail services complex in Farmington, and a growing recreational services complex in the high mountains and lakes region centered on the High Peaks. Land conservation in the High Peaks backcountry helps assure the continuing vibrant growth of our recreational services complex while continuing to protect forest production. A wildlife refuge is a “good fit” for this purpose because it will offer low-density recreation activities and active forest management that supplement, but do not compete with, the nearby commercial recreation resorts, businesses, and services.
100% Federal Funding. Similar to the Forest Legacy program that is now being used to conserve nearly 18,000 acres in the High Peaks backcountry, a new NWR would be funded primarily through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. This important fund is not based on tax dollars; instead, the money is from oil and gas production on the federally-owned continental shelf.
High Peaks Alliance believes that Franklin County citizens and taxpayers should appreciate the value of attracting a project involving 100% non-local, non-state dollars. If these non-tax federal conservation dollars are not invested in Maine, they will be invested in another state instead. This funding opportunity is really a once-in-a-generation opportunity that deserves very careful consideration by people in Franklin County and in Maine.