The cuts would hurt the ability of refuges to respond to hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and fires, which cost nearly $700 million between 2005 and last year, the report said. Refuges would be forced to divert funding from programs that reduce trees, brush and assorted debris that help fires burn out of control.
Refuges also pay to control invasive species, such as pythons that are squeezing native animals out of the Everglades. Some of the refuges, which lure 45 million visitors and bring $4.2 billion to local economies, would probably close.
Fish and Wildlife is not just trying to adapt its refuges to budgets; it’s reviewing a number of plans to adapt them to the changing climate and rising seas.
The agency is torn between spending millions of dollars to keep refuges as they are or retreating from target areas and letting rising waters take over. Letting nature take its course does not appeal to residents who live near the Chincoteague and Prime Hook refuges.
Chincoteague residents implored the refuge to keep rebuilding the beach on Assateague Island, an economic engine that draws thousands of tourists each summer.
Last year, tension between the town and the refuge spiked after Hurricane Irene destroyed part of the beach and a parking lot used by tourists. The refuge manager said officials would have to rethink making taxpayers foot the nearly $1 million cost to restore the area after every storm and recommended a second public beach that is more difficult to reach.
Residents believe that change would halt tourism and destroy the town. Congress created the beach in the 1960s, drawing beachgoers and businesspeople who built homes, hotels and shops to accommodate them.
Every year the sea creeps up, and refuge officials fret over restoring the beach. Last month, Sandy caused even more damage than Irene, eroding the beach and washing away two parking lots and an access road.
At Prime Hook, Fish and Wildlife is under pressure to repair breaks in a dune that protects both the refuge and the nearby Primehook community. Storm surge in the Delaware Bay during Sandy busted the dune, widening a 300-foot opening to 1,500 feet.
Water and mud from marshes in the refuge caused 18 inches to 3 feet of flooding in some of the community’s 200 homes. Residents say conservation efforts at the refuge have altered the marsh and caused flooding. But the homes are in a plain that floods even at high tide.
“They have storm surge coming from the ocean side and flooding from the back side of their homes. I feel really bad for the situation that they’re in,” Kahan said. “The answer is not very clear moving forward what can be done.”
Repairing the dune and protecting the homes will cost taxpayers at least $2 million, and officials worry that, after numerous breaks in the dune, they have exhausted the supply of sand needed to repair it.
“I think these refuge managers have a real challenge in front of them,” said Brian van Eerden, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Southern Rivers Program in Virginia. Those challenges include studying climate science and shaping adaptation plans, which are blueprints designed to defend the refuges from devastating blows, he said.