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

If wind turbines and birds aren't compatible, airplanes are even worse.

The Pocosin Lakes refuge in North Carolina borders the Great Dismal Swamp, and it is a vast wetland that is home to ducks, tundra swans, geese and other birds. But it is now severely threatened, according to the National Wildlife Refuge Association, by the proposed construction of a military airport just five miles from the refuge.

Similarly, the White River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas has more than 300 lakes and ponds that provide an oasis for animals ranging from bears to bald eagles. Without an adequate supply of water, the lakes would dry up, destroying the habitat.

But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a pumping station capable of sucking water out of the White River at the rate of more than 1,600 cubic feet per second to serve the needs of local rice farmers, according to the association. Thus the refuge is listed as under "severe risk."

Water is also an issue confronting the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, a vast, arid region of 1.5 million acres in southern Nevada. It is the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states, and scarcely 4 inches of rain falls on its lower elevations each year.

But its southern boundary is a scant half-mile from the city limits of Las Vegas, the third-fastest growing metropolitan area in the country. The animals in the refuge, as well as the animals in the city, both need water. The conflict is bound to become critical for both.

None of these conflicts are the work of nefarious robber barons. Many folks these days recognize the need to provide some haven for other animals that also need a place to nest. But with an expanding population, and dwindling resources, something's got to give.

Let's hope that human needs, great though they may be, will not swamp the needs of those who were here before us. Surely there's room for all of us.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.