Providing Refuge for All Americans

10/22/2012 09:58 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

In the early years of the 20th century, feathers were all the rage as a fashionable adornment for women's hats. An unfortunate consequence of the fad was it created an enormous demand for feathers. Wherever birds congregated, reckless "plumers" followed to shoot and grab.

One such place was Pelican Island, a federally owned speck of land off Florida's Atlantic Coast that was a haven for pelicans, egrets, herons and other eye-catching waterfowl -- and an easy target for wanton shooting.

An alarmed bird scientist brought the problem to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a renowned bird expert and outdoorsman. Roosevelt asked if any law barred him from declaring Pelican Island a federal bird reservation. No, TR was told. "Very well. I so declare it," he replied.

With that characteristically decisive act, Roosevelt, on March 14, 1903, established the first refuge in what is now America's National Wildlife Refuge System. Today, Roosevelt's achievement has grown to a network of 556 refuges and thousands of waterfowl easements covering 150 million acres in all 50 states.

Last week, October 14 to 20, was National Wildlife Refuge Week, when a bit of attention was given the cause of conserving America's wildlife heritage.

It's a cause that transcends partisan boundaries. Wildlife refuges are places where all Americans can enjoy fresh air in the outdoors, hunt, fish, watch wildlife, and give young people an opportunity to see the unplugged wonders of nature.

Families need not travel far. Refuges are within a day's drive for most Americans, whether they live in big cities or small towns. Every year, 30 million wildlife watchers, 7 million anglers, and 2.5 million hunters visit our national wildlife refuges.

The refuges are a magnificent endowment. From Alaska's tundra to Florida's subtropical wetlands, from the rocky coast of Maine to remote Pacific island reefs, and in forests, deserts, mountains, marshes, grasslands, and seashores in between, refuges harbor a dazzling array of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and plants in their native habitats.

Since Theodore Roosevelt's day, presidents and members of Congress from both parties have joined forces to expand the refuge system and provide for its stewardship, through sales of duck stamps to hunters, reservation of energy production royalties for conservation, and by accepting bequests from landowners under the 1929 Migratory Bird Conservation Act.

Wildlife refuges deliver great value. For every $100 spent by the federal government, a mere 14 cents is budgeted for operating and maintaining refuges. For that modest sum, refuges attracted recreational visits that generated more than $1.5 billion in economic value in 2010, according to a study published last year.

Refuges also generate valuable "ecosystem services" on which people depend: water storage and filtration, wildlife habitat, recycling of nutrients, and climate regulation. America's refuges together yield an estimated $32.3 billion worth of ecosystem services annually.

While such figures are impressive, the lasting value of our national wildlife refuges goes beyond dollars and cents. Refuges reflect our shared values as a people who care for our country, cherish its scenic beauty, and keep its legacies for future generations.

That's the timeless lesson Americans learned when Theodore Roosevelt established America's first refuge on Pelican Island 109 years ago -- and one that we must diligently remind our elected political leaders of today.

A good way to remind our elected representatives is to sign the American Eagle Compact. The Compact, which has more than 50,000 signatures so far, is a cooperative effort by ConservAmerica and the National Audubon Society to show that good stewardship transcends partisan differences and ought to be a national priority.

The national wildlife refuges belong to all Americans, those alive today and generations unborn. Take a break from the routine and visit a refuge near you. There is so much to enjoy and discover.