There could be more hunting, fishing, trapping, grazing, farming and timber cutting on National Wildlife Refuges next year under a new Interior Department policy. The proposals, still being fine-tuned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are part of Secretary James G. Watt's drive to maximize the use of federal lands.
Unlike the national parks, the 410 wildlife refuges rarely have well-developed recreational facilities. However, specific activities are permitted there, as long as they don't run counter to wildlife management efforts.
Critics are concerned, though, that without additional funding, Interior will promote the refuges' money-making activities at the expense of wildlife protection. In fiscal 1980, the refuges produced $4.6 million in revenues for the federal government.
F. Eugene Hester, fish and wildlife deputy director, said the department's policy is to "look at facilities and see where we can accomplish greater use by the public. But they have to be either beneficial or compatible to wildlife management, not a diversion."
Last December, refuge managers were asked to report if their refuges could support additional activities, according to memos obtained by Defenders of Wildlife, a group that opposes hunting. When most managers reported that the activities could not be expanded, Hester sent a memo to his key aides in April: "I am not satisfied . . . . and ask you to look again for such uses and innovative ways to implement them."
Robert E. Putz, associate director for wildlife resources, responded a month later: "We have reconsidered the potential of the National Wildlife Refuge System for supporting expanded economic uses . . . ."
Among the activities that he said could be expanded were grazing, farming, timber cutting, trapping, concessions, power generation, fishing, retriever dog training, Christmas tree cutting, firewood gathering and hunting guide services. All of these activities are permitted under the law.
While the Putz memo offered few specifics, it said, "It is reasonable to conclude that there is potential for additional concession contracts on selected refuges." He noted that since demand for firewood is growing rapidly, the "potential exists for issuing permits to private contractors for the removal of firewood for resale." Currently, the agency issues free permits to individuals to collect firewood for their own use.
Interior spokesman Phil Million said, "It's not a policy change, it's a change in emphasis."
Harry B. Crandell, staff director of the House Interior subcommitee on public lands and national parks, said, "If they overemphasize grazing in a particular refuge , for example, it could be an important issue." The law, he added, "is pretty broad in its determination of acceptable uses, but it emphasizes compatibility with fish and wildlife management."
Maryland and Virginia have seven national wildlife refuges, and all are "heavily used" by city residents, according to area director John D. Green, so "there may be few additional uses."