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Rubin and Houghton: When Natural Security Means National Security

Congress can act to preserve wildlife refuges and enhance military readiness

Each year, two of America’s noblest raptors share the sky over a patch of Nevada desert: In springtime, the golden eagle arrives to nest at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge 20 miles north of the Las Vegas strip, while at other times of the year another aerial predator, the F-22 Raptor, launched from adjacent Nellis Air Force Base, takes to these same skies to train American fighter pilots.

Some may be surprised to learn that most of our nation’s 561 national wildlife refuges, like Desert NWR, provide natural buffers against urbanization and other development, preserving open land and airspace necessary for military units to execute their vital training missions.

As Congress confronts the sequester and budget issues to follow, that synergy between Defense Department training areas and the National Wildlife Refuge System is threatened by the reality of NWRS budget cuts between $50 million and $100 million.

These cuts would have serious consequences for the NWRS’ ability to protect habitat resources necessary for wildlife and human activities in the refuges, as well as for military readiness.

Two of the five goals of the Congressional Wildlife Refuge Caucus are to support adequate NWRS budgets and to support the strategic growth of the refuge system. Despite the efforts of this bipartisan caucus’s 132 members from 41 states, Capitol Hill has repeatedly failed to appropriate the $900 million annually derived from offshore oil and gas leasing as promised under the Land and Water Conservation Fund. A portion of these funds would protect refuges that benefit not just wildlife but also, incidentally, military training areas.

The story of Desert NWR and Nellis AFB is just one example of a larger trend playing out nationwide, across the 150 million acres of our NWRS. For starters, 250 of our 561 wildlife refuges secure open space for the military by being located within 20 miles of a military installation.

About half of those same refuges also lie under military training routes and Special Use Airspace used for military training. Beyond that, an additional 197 refuges underlie both a military training route and Special Use Airspace beyond 20 miles from an installation. In total, 447 refuges, or about 80 percent of the refuges in the system, secure open space that is crucial to military training. And like Desert NWR, many refuges grapple with a growing list of challenges associated with people living and recreating close by.

Almost any military base commander will tell you it’s a bad idea when the sole responsibility of managing threatened and endangered wildlife habitat is pushed onto their bases and ranges — when these installations become, in effect, refuges of last resort. Doing so undermines military training, operations and scheduling, yet may also fail to produce meaningful species recovery. As a result, one of the most important relationships that the Defense Department has cultivated over the past decade is with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages the NWRS.

While the primary relationship is regulatory in nature, these two entities have also devised innovative species protection and recovery programs aimed at creating or extending habitat beyond military bases. Collaborative successes include protection of the red cockaded woodpecker and desert tortoise.

But, facing perilous budget cuts, national wildlife refuges may lose the capacity to properly manage habitat for species recovery, thus forcing the unwanted responsibility onto military bases and ranges.

Unless Congress acts to protect the refuges, another casualty will be the numerous climate security and ecosystem service benefits provided by the NWRS that support, directly or indirectly, the operation of military installations. For example, refuges buffer the effects of hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and other increasingly potent natural disasters; manage storm surge and water runoff; and recharge aquifers.

If the NWRS capacity is diminished, then installations will pay to recover these services in some other, harder way — or they will have to make do with less access to water and possible reductions in operations to address air and water quality issues. Indeed, the NWRS provides approximately $26.9 billion in ecosystem services per year, for the lower 48 states alone.

It’s true that congressional proposals to cut the NWRS budget by 10 to 20 percent will cause irreparable harm to wildlife while also restricting visitation opportunities enjoyed by more than 40 million people each year. But the national security ramifications of such a cut are perhaps even greater as one of the Defense Department’s most important domestic allies for training readiness is eviscerated. It’s time that budget doves and hawks in Congress become birds of a feather, avoid this reckless course and recognize the multiple benefits of adequately funding our national wildlife refuges.

Rebecca R. Rubin is president and CEO of Marstel-Day LLC and also serves as a member of the board of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. David Houghton is president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and chairman of the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement.

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