Eric Jay Dolin has taken on a subject with a split personality in his Smithsonian Book of National Wildlife Refuges. Published in March to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System, it celebrates this federal network of 538 refuges through well-told stories and lush color photographs of landscapes and wildlife. Dolin rightly congratulates the U.S. government for setting aside land for both wildlife and people to enjoy and then trying to make sure the latter don’t wipe out the former.
Fortunately, Dolin is too thorough a researcher and too honest an environmentalist to leave it at that. He also describes the darker side of the story—although it’s darker than he lets on. About twenty years ago, while on assignment for the New York Times Magazine, I traveled to the Atlantic coast of Florida to find out why a subspecies of bird, the dusky seaside sparrow, was about to become the first vertebrate to become extinct since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. What was most remarkable is that the bird, which would be officially declared extinct in 1991, lived exclusively on two national wildlife refuges, one of which had been established precisely to protect it. As the head of Florida’s state wildlife agency said to me about the feds overseeing the refuges, “If they can’t save a bird on a national wildlife refuge, they can’t save anything!”
The problem is that, as Dolin explains in his book, national wildlife refuges—in fact, most federally owned conservation land—must by law balance the needs of plants and animals with various human uses, a situation that opens them up to political squabbling and contentious budget battles. National wildlife refuges, unfortunately, have been among the most politically battered federal lands. Their first source of dedicated funding was from the sale of duck stamps, which are federal duck-hunting licenses, and so for much of the twentieth century most refuges were managed as duck-hunting reserves. Drilling for oil and gas, when deemed not harmful to wildlife, is also permissible on national wildlife refuges, and the most recent result of that bit of wisdom has been our perennial slugfest over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Some refuges even sit downstream from toxic Superfund sites, which means refuge managers, most of them underpaid and many of them real wildlife heroes, are powerless to prevent the animals and plants they oversee from being poisoned with PCBs or mercury. The idea of a wildlife refuge, noble as it may be, is perilously close to wishful thinking.
The value of the Smithsonian Book of National Wildlife Refuges is its broad review of these problems within the context of the system’s complicated history. Dolan’s telling of the early years is particularly engaging. He also describes recent scientific and political attempts to reform the National Wildlife Refuge System and direct it more clearly through its conflicting mandates, but so far these have not led to the overhaul many have long sought.
Dolin remains optimistic, even though Arctic refuge drilling is only a few legislative votes short of becoming reality. “As the refuge system heads into its second century,” he writes, “its future looks bright.” I hope he’s correct.
Norman Boucher is editor of the BAM.