by Caroline Brower, Vice President for Advocacy
Happy Holidays! With Congress scheduled to go into recess at the end of this week (December 15th), we are looking at a slow pace on Capitol Hill for the next month.
On November 30th, a hearing was held in the House of Representatives on a bill introduced by Rep. Mary Peltola (D-AK) and supported by both Senators Murkowski and Sullivan that would reinstate the oil development leases in the Arctic Refuge which the Biden Administration recently canceled. Members from the environmental community testified against such a bill, and while it is likely to pass the House, it will probably not be brought up in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
The more critical issue happening right now for wildlife refuges is the defunding of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System. The System has lost nearly $200 million in capacity over the last twelve years, and this loss of funding is eating away at the ability of refuge managers in Alaska to keep and hire staff. Most Alaska refuges have half the number of staff they had a decade ago, and when folks retire or change jobs, their positions are not filled. And without adequate staffing levels, it is extremely difficult to maintain the programs that benefit the communities in and around refuges.
For example, Yukon Flats and Kanuti Refuges are likely going to be complexed under one management team. As staff retire or move to different jobs, their positions remain vacant or are being taken off the books. These remote refuges, 12.7 million acres total (larger than the state of Maryland), will only have a few staff members. Other refuges are losing biologists, there are not enough pilots, and visitor services staff are in short supply. These Refuge staff members bring environmental education programs to schools and the community and biological expertise and research ability. The loss of pilots and budget for flights means that remaining staff are unable to access the vast majority of their off-road refuges and wildlife surveys become impossible.
Congress is in a budget-slashing mood, but we can’t let them eliminate all management on refuges. Staffing levels are so low right now that Alaska’s refuges are functioning at a bare minimum, with visitor centers only open for a few hours per day and programs are getting canceled all the time. Any more cuts are going to close visitor centers and eliminate wildlife surveys that are, in some cases, decades old. The situation is dire.
Senator Murkowski is the Ranking Republican on the Senate subcommittee that determines funding for the Refuge System. She can change this, if she wanted to. She responds to her constituents. Can you take a few minutes to write to her to ask her to increase funding for the National Wildlife Refuge System to add at least $100 million to current budget levels? Her office address in Anchorage is 510 L Street, Suite 600, Anchorage, AK 99501.