Wildlife Havens Squeezed by Human Needs

Here's the good news: 545 National Wildlife Refuges have been established in this country in a desperate effort to provide a habitat for the plants and animals that called this land home thousands of years before the first humans arrived. They are as diverse as the land itself, they can be found in every state, and they are the reason why many endangered species have survived.

But here's the bad news: Many of those refuges are under siege, not from within, but from without. Urban sprawl and increasing demands for various types of developments are threatening to overwhelm some refuges by wiping out critical buffer zones that adjoin these vital wildlife habitats.

The National Wildlife Refuge Association has identified six refuges in six different states as "at severe risk" because of incompatible encroachment upon their borders. They range from Stone Lakes, a unique urban refuge that is almost within a stone's throw of California's capital, to the Alaska Maritime refuge, a vast region that encompasses the entire Aleutian chain of islands, as well as numerous other islands in Alaskan waters.

The threats to each of the refuges are as different as the refuges themselves. In California, it is urban sprawl that has pushed the value of land into the stratosphere, making it very difficult to acquire acreage once destined for the Stone Lakes refuge. In Alaska it is an oil spill that began last December when a Malaysian tanker ran around and split in half, dumping more than 400,000 gallons of oil into waters that are vital to a wide range of animals. Nineteen vessels and 114 workers are still trying to clean up the mess.

The Growing Need for Land

The problem is basic. Human needs, resulting partly from rampant growth in population, are winning the war for diminishing lands. And it's going to get a lot worse.

Between 1990 and 2000, the U.S. population increased by 32.7 million, the largest 10-year growth in the history of the country. That trend continues unabated.

According to the Brookings Institution, about 60 million new homes will have to be built by 2030. Many will be on land that is now available to wildlife.

Private forests, which are also vital habitats for wildlife, are being developed at a staggering rate. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that more than 1 million acres are being developed each year, dramatically reducing the amount of open land.

Difficult Choices

All of that places enormous demands for multiple uses of land surrounding many refuges. In some cases, the effort to do the right thing is surely going to backfire.

For example, the enormous demands for energy in this country can best be met by alternative sources, such as solar or wind power. What conservationist is going to argue against replacing fossil fuels with clean, inexhaustible sources of electricity?

Most likely, the folks who care about the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge on the Rock River in southeastern Wisconsin. The refuge encompasses a large marsh that was carved out by a glacier 12,000 years ago, and it is one of the most important habitats for migratory birds in the entire world.

But 133 wind turbines are planned for an area just 1.2 miles from the marsh. They could produce needed electricity, but to migratory birds a wind turbine is like a set of giant knives, slicing through their airspace. A number of researchers have found evidence that birds apparently don't see the blades until it's too late.

Air and Water Rights

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