The National Wildlife Refuge System, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), is the largest system of lands in the world dedicated for the conservation of wildlife. There are over 545 refuges nationwide, encompassing 95 million acres. The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to "administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans." Part of achieving this mission is the goal of fostering "...an understanding and instill appreciation of fish, wildlife, and plants, and their conservation, by providing the public with safe, high-quality, and compatible wildlife-dependent public use." Such use includes hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation. About 98% of the system is open to the public, attracting more than 40 million visitors annually. More than 25 million people per year visit refuges to observe and photograph wildlife, 7 million to hunt and fish and more than half a million to participate in educational programs (The Citizeni??s Wildlife Refuge Planning Handbook).
The National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act of 1997 (Public Law 105-57, USC668dd) is the guiding legislation for the management of these lands. The law identifies these six wildlife-dependent recreational uses that should be given priority and provides a process for ensuring that these and other activities do not conflict with the management purpose and goals of the refuge. The Act also requires the FWS to develop a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for every refuge by the year 2012. A refuge CCP outlines goals, objectives, and management strategies for the refuge for the next 15 years. It provides a vision and describes desired future conditions for the refuge. These goals and objectives have focused largely on habitat and wildlife management. Increasingly, however, refuges are placing more emphasis on visitor services goals and objectives in their CCP to ensure that visitor appreciation and support for fish and wildlife conservation is a part of the refugei??s long-term plan.
Regardless of specific CCP goals and objectives, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA; Public Law 91-190:852-859.42, U.S.C. and as Amended (P.L. 94-52 and P.L. 94-83) 42 U.S.C. 4321-4347) mandates that the CCP planning documents (e.g., environmental assessment or environmental impact statement) for each refuge must contain an analysis of social and economic conditions (the affected environment) and evaluate social and economic results from likely management scenarios. In addition, public review and comment on alternatives for future management is required by NEPA and is a formal part of the CCP process. There are many reasons to obtain public input, besides legal mandates, however. Doing so can provide baseline data on public/visitor use, experience, preferences, and expectations. It can also provide managers with a better understanding of public acceptability of alternatives/future changes that may be proposed in the CCP. This public participation process also facilitates the engagement of a variety of stakeholders in the refuge planning process.
There is some evidence that planning processes that include a broad array of stakeholders produce more comprehensive plans that are more likely to be implemented (Burby, 2003). The challenge is structuring public involvement in ways that are meaningful and productive for agencies and the public.
Studies of public involvement processes in environmental decision making have shown that participants evaluate these processes in terms of both process and outcome. Thus, stakeholders seek qualities such as accessibility and the quality of deliberation (process components), and the extent to which their participation is
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USGS Numbered Series
Visitor Survey Results for the Souris River Loop National Wildlife Refuges: Completion Report