by Whit Gibbons

November 8, 2009

Sam D. Hamilton, the new director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) spoke last week to the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The group included USFWS representatives from each of the states as well as those from state wildlife agencies of the Southeast and outside the region. The focus of his talk and a theme of the conference was North American wildlife conservation.

The USFWS mission is "working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people." The fish and wildlife in the mission statement do not refer simply to game species such as deer and ducks or bass and trout. All animals living in the wild, including butterflies, clams, and wood rats qualify as wildlife. And the USFWS is concerned with all of them.

I liked the way Director Hamilton acknowledged the problems facing future conservation initiatives, which is the first step in dealing with any challenge. He mentioned many hurdles ahead for those who wish to develop a strong conservation program for the nation. Included were the increasing water shortages in many regions, fragmentation of natural habitats, and "accelerating climate change that is exacerbating all other existing threats." He noted one problem that I believe is a particularly serious one: much of today's society is "disconnected from the natural world" and therefore apathetic toward the problems that need to be addressed to develop long-lasting conservation programs.

Nonetheless, he was upbeat about the prospects for success in developing a national conservation attitude that will benefit us all. He was very positive about the fresh approach of the new secretary of the interior Ken Salazar. As Hamilton said, Salazar "understands and appreciates what [the USFWS does] for the country and is calling upon us to think big, be creative, and act decisively." Having up-the-line support for any national initiative is critical to its success, and it appears that such support is there.

He spoke of President Obama's priority for a "new, comprehensive energy plan for our nation" and of developing "alternative energy sources, including solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass energy." The role of the USFWS will be to support renewable energy programs wherever possible. Hamilton stressed the importance of working in partnership with state wildlife departments and private industry to minimize impacts on natural habitats and wildlife. Balancing the push for new technology against the critical need to properly manage the nation's wildlife and natural ecosystems will be a challenge in itself.

An example of how the USFWS will contribute to the development of alternative energy sources is an advisory committee that offers advice and recommendations about the ecological impacts of land-based wind turbines. Significantly, nongame wildlife species as well as game species are being considered as part of the nation's fish and wildlife resources.

A specific funding initiative mentioned by the director is related to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The USFWS will receive $280 million in stimulus money. In particular, funding will be allocated to "undertake 183 construction projects across the Southeast focused on habitat restoration, energy efficiency, and facility improvements at national wildlife refuges, fish hatcheries, and on other lands." Such projects will not only create jobs but also give the workers a direct connection to the process of preserving and protecting our wildlife and natural resources.

The USFWS is one of the most worthwhile and effective agencies in the federal government. The 150 million acres that comprise the National Wildlife Refuge System with its 550 refuges qualify the USFWS as a critical player in U.S. conservation efforts. As Hamilton put it, the national wildlife refuges are "the most magnificent and diverse collection of lands and waters in the world, held in trust for the American public and dedicated to the conservation and management of fish, wildlife, and plants." How refreshing to see an emerging government policy that recognizes that our nation can encourage technological development, including a search for alternative energy sources, while simultaneously endorsing--indeed demanding--the preservation of our natural heritage.

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