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Wildlife refuges fall prey to drug labs, illicit sex

America's wildlife refuges are so short of money that one-third have no staff, and drug dealers are using them as stomping grounds, a group pushing for more funding says.
Neglected Refuges
A drug camp is seen in a National Wildlife Refuge in the state of Washington. AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

America's wildlife refuges are so short of money that one-third have no staff, boardwalks and buildings are in disrepair, and drug dealers are using them to grow marijuana and make methamphetamine, a group pushing for more funding says.

"Without adequate funding, we are jeopardizing some of the world's most spectacular wildlife and wild lands," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and chairman of the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement.

The cooperative said in a report released Thursday to Congress that the nation's 548 refuges and the 100 million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System — about the size of California — is underfunded by 43 percent. The refuge system needs at least $765 million a year but is receiving only $434 million, the report says.

A decrease in law enforcement has left the refuges vulnerable to criminal activity, including prostitution, torched cars and illegal immigrant camps along the Potomac River in suburban Washington, D.C.; gay sex hookups in South Carolina and Alabama; methamphetamine labs in Nevada; and pot growing operations in Washington state.

"The refuge system has been underfunded for years but it has really mushroomed in the past several," Hirsche said.

The cooperative is recommending Congress increase funding for fiscal year 2009 to $514 million and that full funding be reached by 2013. The House and Senate are expected to take up the issue in coming weeks.

The report says the refuge system has cut 300 staff positions. Without more funding, a plan to reduce staffing by 20 percent will continue. The system needs 845 law enforcement officers but has 180.

"In some cases, we find that drug operations have set up shop in refuges," Hirsche said.

Staff cuts, maintenance backlog
Alaska has 76 million acres of refuge lands and accounts for 83 percent of land in the refuge system. Managing those lands can be particularly daunting given the sheer size and remoteness of many of the state's 16 refuges, said Todd Logan, regional chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System in Alaska.

It's even harder when money is tight, he said. For example, the visitor center at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is inadequate, the exhibits should be updated and the carpet needs cleaning, he said. The boardwalk suffered ice and water damage this winter.

"We have a pretty significant maintenance backlog," Logan said.

The report says the nation's refuges receive 40 million visitors a year and contribute an estimated $1.7 billion to the economy. They provide more than 27,000 jobs.

This Memorial Day weekend, hundreds of thousands of Americans will visit one of the nation's wildlife refuges, only to find at many there is no one to greet them, Hirsche said.

The nation's refuge system was created in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt after a trip to tiny Pelican Island in South Florida. There, giant shotguns were being used to kill hundreds of birds to satisfy the market for fashionable feathers. Roosevelt went on to create 50 more refuges, stretching from Florida to Alaska.