Environmental Conservation

Delaware Audubon Takes Action on Prime Hook NWR Land Use Issue

by Nicholas DiPasquale, Delaware Audubon Conservation Chair

Should the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) be operated to support public uses or should a few local farmers continue to use it for private economic gain, simply because they have been allowed to do so for so long?

That question was asked during public meetings for the Prime Hook NWR Comprehensive Conservation Plan.

Does the public have to wait until the Refuge develops and implements a Comprehensive Conservation Plan, which by their own statements could take years? Or should a Compatibility Determination be made to determine whether agricultural production supports the priority uses set forth in the NWR Improvement Act?

In November 2005, Delaware Audubon requested information from the Prime Hook Refuge Manager to help us determine whether this is "A Matter of Public Use or Private Gain." [Click here for a PDF file of our November 16, 2005 letter.]

Delaware Audubon was seeking information about the NWR conversion of grassland and successional habitat study plots to agricultural production without public notice or opportunity for comment, and without a compatibility determination being conducted as required by the 1997 Refuge Improvement Act.

We believe that Prime Hook NWR responded to this information request less than adequately. Delaware Audubon even offered to send a volunteer to the Prime Hook offices to copy documents in order not to impose a burden on refuge staff. Documents came dribbling in over the next several months. The Refuge Manager continues to not answer direct questions.

DNREC's Natural Heritage Program conducted a rare plant and animal survey of these study plots. Preliminary results from the survey demonstrate that the study plots were biologically very rich and attracted many species of birds and wildlife, including migratory songbirds whose populations have decreased significantly in the U.S. due in large part to habitat loss.

Delaware Audubon has been working with other organizations and local users of the refuge to determine whether the decision to put the study plots back into agricultural production was appropriate and to take any action necessary to correct the situation.

On April 5, 2006, Delaware Audubon joined with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Refugekeeper, and the Center for Food Safety, filing a suit in federal district court. The suit contends that the Prime Hook NWR is not being operated in compliance with federal law. We will keep you posted on the progress of this action.

Background

The lands that make up the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge were purchased over 40 years ago to protect migratory waterfowl, primarily ducks and geese. Over that time, however, several federal laws have passed that expanded the responsibilities of the 545 national refuges around the country to include other species of birds and wildlife.

In 1997, Congress passed the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act. This legislation "establishes a strong and singular conservation mission" for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Its expanded mission 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."

Further, the NWR Improvement Act "recognizes . . . wildlife-dependent recreational uses involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation as the priority public uses of the Refuge System."

The controversy at Prime Hook started when the refuge manager decided to allow approximately 150 acres of refuge land that had been part of a 3-year research project to be taken out of grassland and early successional habitat and put back into agricultural production. This decision was made without public notice or input. Some of the local farmers are former owners of land acquired by the refuge. Over the years, they have leased some of these refuge lands for agricultural production. They appear to believe that they have a legal right to do this for as long as they want, based on what they believe were promises made to them when the refuge acquired their land--although these promises are found nowhere in writing.

They also maintain that these agricultural crops (primarily corn and soy beans) are essential food stuffs for migrating waterfowl and other wildlife, although none of these farmers provides food plots on the acres they cultivate. They also can't explain how this can be so, when they harvest their crops in late September and October, well before migratory waterfowl pass through the refuge in mid-November.