Battle lines are being drawn about whether national bird and wildlife refuges should be just for the birds, or for man, too.
New U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director John Turner, a Wyoming rancher, told Western reporters a few days ago that he fears some groups are seeking to make the refuges pristine areas just for wildlife with few or no interfering uses by man.Such "interfering uses" that some wish to reduce or eliminate include hunting, fishing, water sports, cattle grazing, picnicking, camping, mining, military aircraft flybys and possibly even visits by tourists to watch nature.
In other words, the war familiar to Westerners about how much federal land should be set aside just for nature and how much on which to allow mixed use by both wildlife and man is spreading now to the wildlife refuges.
Utah has many such refuges - Brown's Park, Bear River, Fish Springs, Locomotive Springs, Timpie Springs, Ouray, Stewart Lake, Bicknell Bottoms, Salt Creek and Ogden Bay to name some.
The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near Brigham City even announced this week it is developing a $22 million plan to restore damage from Great Salt Lake flooding, which envisions making it a major recreation area where up to 300,000 people could stop annually to observe nature.
One of the main causes for the battle heating up is a recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office - Congress' watchdog agency - describing what it sees as growing problems with incompatible uses on the refuges.
It said refuge managers reported in a survey that 60 percent of the nation's refuges have activities by man that are damaging refuges' primary goal of protecting birds and other wildlife.
It said, "Mining, off-road vehicle and airboat use, waterskiing and military air exercises were mostly likely to be considered harmful. Refuge managers told us that these activities disturbed the wildlife habitat, disrupted breeding activities or modified established animal behavior patterns."
One of the examples it used was in the Brown's Park refuge along the Green River near the Utah-Colorado border. "Permitted livestock grazing is hampering the refuge managers efforts to improve goose and duck production. Grazing livestock disturb the nesting birds and eat the plant growth necessary to provide optimal nesting habitat."
The report said efforts to reduce grazing had been resisted by the rancher who held grazing permits for the area.
Some members of Congress, such as House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Chairman Gerry E. Studds, D-Mass., used the report to blast the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying it needs to think more about the animals it's supposed to protect than about helping people disrupt them.
Turner, who has directed the Fish and Wildlife Service for two months now, is taking a stand in the middle of those who want refuges just for wildlife and those who would prefer the status quo.
He said he has ordered a task force to review the GAO report and the uses by man at the nation's refuges. He said some reported uses by man - such as waterskiing - obviously should not be allowed. He said his service will gather biological data about the needs of wildlife and govern the refuges accordingly.
However, he said he feels conditions at refuges have been painted worse than they are and says he is concerned about anti-hunting sentiment and talk by some critics about even curtailing educational visits to refuges.
"Anti-hunting sentiment concerns me. It is a traditional use at refuges," Turner said. "It has raised millions of dollars for the refuges." He noted much of the money to buy land or easements to expand refuges have come from duck stamps that hunters buy.
Also, he said in Wyoming he was a strong supporter of programs to allow the public to observe nature closely at refuges and learn from it - and he will continue to push for that.
Turner is also proposing something that could lead to a fairly quick end to the war. "I think everybody involved should be working together and should sit down and talk." Such conferences may be the only way to work out differing viewpoints constructively.
Also, as Turner points out, many of the problems facing refuges are not controllable by his agency - and must be resolved through negotiations with others. For example, his agency can't revoke mining or grazing rights and can't stop the military from flying in its air space overhead. But by working together, they may work out reasonable compromises.
It's an effort that's for the birds - and man.