By Michelle Werts

Threatened Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus)
Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus) cubs. American Forests has conducted many black bear habitat restoration projects over the years. Credit: USDA

150 million acres of protected land & water

1,000 species of fish

700 species of birds

250 species of reptiles and amphibians

220 species of mammals

I’iwi is one of several critically endangered members of the Hawaiian honeycreeper family. It prefers native koa forests like those in Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Donald Metzner/USFWS

This is the National Wildlife Refuge System, administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), by the numbers. As you may be able to gather from its name and some of the numbers above, its mission is fairly straightforward: “The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” In practice, though, there’s nothing simple about it.

There are more than 550 wildlife refuges in the system, and each requires its own comprehensive conservation plan, which outlines how the refuge will be managed for the benefit of the ecosystem, wildlife and visitors. To help put the enormity of this task in perspective, the National Park Service — the home of treasures like Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon National Park — only oversees 450 properties across 88.5 million acres.

Over the years, American Forests Global ReLeaf has partnered with the FWS to help restore forestland in many of its wildlife refuges, including planting bottomland hardwood trees in Louisiana’s Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge to restore Louisiana black bear habitat, converting retired cropfield to forestland in Kansas’ Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge to provide habitat for wild turkeys and bald eagles and planting Acacia koa in Hawaii’s Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge to create habitat for Hawaiian birds. (For more on Hawaii’s struggle against invasive species, read “Islands in the Balance” from the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of American Forests.)

Gopher tortoise
American Forests has partnered with wildlife refuges in Florida and Georgia to restore habitat for the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). Credit: David Syzdek

However, the impact of the National Wildlife Refuge System extends beyond wildlife. The system is also responsible for providing and administering wildlife-dependent recreation, such as hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography and environmental education and interpretation. As such, the system is also an economic force, as 47 million visitors use it each year, generating $1.7 billion and creating 27,000 jobs in local communities. Like all government programs, though, the National Wildlife Refuge System’s funding isn’t secure.

According to estimates, the system needs $900 million to cover annual operations and maintenance budgets — a number it doesn’t usually get. The president recommended in his FY2014 budget that $499.2 million be allocated to the National Wildlife Refuge System, a number American Forests believes is justified.