Southeast wildlife refuges absorb cuts, watch staffs shrink
By Ben Evans
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON — Jim Burkhart gets excited talking about the schoolchildren who visit the swampy Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Southeast Georgia.
They venture into the 7,000-year-old bog on flat-bottom boats to analyze water samples and collect methane gas that bubbles up from the decomposing peat below.
The likely prospect of seeing an alligator keeps their eyes wide open.
"They just love it," said Burkhart, a refuge ranger who's worked at Okefenokee for nearly 30 years. Teachers tell him that the real-world experience often awakens children who underperform in the classroom.
The Okefenokee's school programs, however, are in jeopardy after two years of budget cuts, and with more on the way. Under a recently announced restructuring, the refuge system's Southeast region would cut almost 90 jobs over the next few years, or about 12 percent of its total. The cuts come on top of almost 70 job eliminations over the last two years as vacancies went unfilled.
Refuge officials say some visitor centers will likely get reduced hours or be closed on slower days. Outreach programs, such as the education work at Okefenokee in which refuge staffers work with three surrounding public school districts, will be curtailed. The cuts will also hit maintenance and environmental protection efforts, such as clearing trails and eliminating invasive plant species.
Four jobs would be lost at Okefenokee, including two rangers and a maintenance worker.
"It just hurts," Burkhart said. "We've been developing these things for the last 30 years and now we're having to cut back."
Run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge System covers some 96 million acres in 545 refuges across the country. Among other things, the system organizes hunting and fishing programs, maintains trails and boating facilities, tracks animal populations, and protects unique or sensitive habitats.
The system grew at a heady pace after Congress passed the Refuge Improvement Act of 1997. With new acquisitions and a clearer mandate, its funding more than doubled in the ensuing years, jumping from $178 million in 1997 to $391 million in 2004. But the past two years have seen a decline as Congress and President Bush have sought to cut spending.
Flat spending coming?
The president's 2007 budget would hold spending roughly flat.
"You have to look at it relative to what it was," said Chris Tollefson, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, responding on behalf of the administration. "It's tough to expect that those kinds of increases would continue."
Refuge officials, however, estimate needing $16 million annual increases to keep up with fixed costs, such as payroll and inflation.
Advocacy groups have argued that the budget should be doubled if the system is to live up to its mission.
Michael Woodbridge, director of government relations at the National Wildlife Refuge Association, said the refuge system was "on life support" in the mid-1990s when Congress and the Clinton administration began ramping up its funding to accommodate expansions and address massive maintenance backlogs.
The Bush administration continued those efforts initially, leading up to the system's centennial celebration in 2003.
"But then after fiscal 2004 we've just seen a steady decline," said Woodbridge, whose organization partners with groups like Ducks Unlimited and the National Rifle Association to advocate for more funding. "We're losing anything we gained . . . We truly are in a crisis. These (staffing) plans really illustrate that."
Cuts by state
A state-by-state look at job cuts planned for national wildlife refuges in the Southeast:
No. Carolina 9
So. Carolina 4
— The Associated Press
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