WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Senator Cory Gardner, a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have introduced bipartisan legislation to enhance the ability of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to protect and restore resources found on National Wildlife Refuges, National Fish Hatcheries and other Service lands, should injury or harm occur. Congressman Mike Thompson (D-Calif.-05) and Congressman Rob Wittman (R-Va.-01) have introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
The Refuge Resource Protection Act (S. 1899) would specifically protect all living and non-living resources within Service lands and waters. Any funds collected to compensate for unlawful injury or destruction of USFWS resources would be used to rectify that specific damage without further Congressional appropriation. The legislation has the support of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages millions of acres of National Wildlife Refuge lands and dozens of National Fish Hatcheries for a broad range of activities – such as hunting, fishing, and wildlife dependent activities. It should have the authority to recoup damages from accidental, negligent and willfully destructive behavior,” said Senator Cardin. “The recent shutdown certainly exacerbated the need for such authority, but, unfortunately, our federal refuges nationwide encounter various injuries and on fairly regular basis.”
“We must be good stewards of our environment, and that includes supporting the mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect national wildlife refuges, endangered species, and management of fish and wildlife for Americans,” said Senator Gardner. “Currently, federal taxpayers on are the hook for unlawful destruction of Service lands and waters, and this legislation will instead rightly place that burden on bad actors. I’m proud to lead this bipartisan effort in support of this conservation agency that protects our wildlife habitat.”
“Currently when our treasured wildlife refuges are damaged, USFWS has to use taxpayer money to cover the cost of repairs and restoration. This is unacceptable – if someone intentionally damage our important protected habitats, it should be that person’s responsibility to pay for it,” said Congressman Thompson. “That’s why I introduced the Refuge System Protection Act, a bipartisan bill in both the House and the Senate that allows Fish and Wildlife to seek damages and more quickly restore these refuges without making taxpayers foot the bill. Other agencies such as the National Park Service already have this authority and it’s a commonsense solution to this problem.”
“The First District of Virginia is home to unique and special ecosystems. As a former state health official who conducted field research in the Chesapeake Bay, I am aware of the ecological challenges facing Virginia waters, wetlands, and refuges and I know the importance of taking care of our environment for future generations. Providing for the protection and security of these resources is absolutely vital.” said Wittman. “This legislation will help ensure that our nation’s refuges are protected for years to come.”
“The Refuge Association strongly supports the Resource Protection Act, which would allow individual refuges to recoup losses when their lands, wildlife, or assets are damaged, and we thank Senator Gardner and Senator Cardin for their leadership on this issue,” said Geoffrey L. Haskett, President of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “We’ve seen everything from graffiti on buildings to arson on boardwalks to bulldozing of trees to damming of creeks. In one instance, a salvager ripped up abandoned oil pipelines that were buried on refuge property, causing $7.5 million in damages to wildlife habitat. Currently, the American taxpayer covers repairs through the federal appropriations process and the refuges’ base budgets. This bill shifts the responsibility for repairs to the person who committed the injury. It’s just the right thing to do.”
“We at BHA commend the bipartisan and bicameral leadership in advancing this commonsense legislation, which would replenish funds to restore damaged natural resources that benefit our wild public lands and waters,” said Land Tawney, President and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “Money should go back to the refuges where the damage occurred. Our refuge system should not have to rely on taxpayers’ dollars or take money from other important refuge needs. With the Refuge Resource Protection Act, taxpayers will no longer be responsible for paying for damage and funds from important projects won’t be redistributed, but the people who harm our natural resources will rightfully foot the bill.”
According to the USFWS, from 2014 through 2016, there were a total of 1,787 vandalism incidents identified. Of those, 518 have had their damage costs documented for a total of $237,040. For the same period of time, 127 arson incidents were identified and of those 7 arson incidents have had their damage costs documented, resulting in $158,329 worth of damage. These years are not isolated, as damage – accidental and more malignant – occurs annually.
Total direct costs of vandalism and arson can be difficult to calculate as not all damage costs get reported due to lack of staff, time, or resources. Thus, an additional 1,269 vandalism and 120 arson incidents occurred from 2014 and 2016 for which damage costs were not directly calculated. Based on the average documented costs for the other incidents during this time period, the estimated total costs for all combined vandalism and arson incidents is almost $1.2 million.
Without legal authority, when incidents occur on USFWS lands, the agency has no standing to seek damages to restore, repair or replace damaged or destroyed property. In these instances, it must choose between using tax-payer funded appropriations to pay for assessing, repairing, replacing or restoring structures, habitat and other resources injured by the responsible party or for other important Refuge needs. The inability to collect damages has added to a difficult maintenance backlog.