As a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I know the challenges facing the National Wildlife Refuge System – but I see great opportunities for the system as well. As we’ve come to realize, ecological systems are highly interconnected and achieving our conservation goals requires action at broad scales. Each refuge has the potential to contribute far more value than the sum of its acres, and we must view each unit in terms of its larger contribution. In this time of rapid ecological change, there is no better moment to forge a new role for our refuge lands and waters – one in which the refuge system reaches across institutional, cultural and generational boundaries to advance conservation across the landscape.

Mexican gray wolf, Sevilleta, NWR

In this time of rapid ecological change, there is no better moment to forge a new role for our refuge lands and waters – one in which the refuge system reaches across institutional, cultural and generational boundaries to advance conservation across the landscape. (Image: Mexican gray wolf, Sevilleta NWR, NM, Sharon Wallace)

I see several steps to help us move forward. First, we must shift away from the refuge system’s historic focus primarily on “trust resources.” Ecosystems are made up of many components, and we need a dedicated system that prioritizes preservation and maintenance of the full spectrum of biological diversity. Revision of individual refuge plans must be coordinated with nearby communities and landowners to make refuge planning a process that includes the whole ecological neighborhood. Plans should describe refuge goals that will maximize the integrity of ecological systems regardless of boundaries, and our ultimate goal should be to conserve a sustainable landscape that requires minimal intervention. To achieve this, management decisions must be based on more accurate indicators of biodiversity and habitat health.

Second, we must evolve the refuge system’s land acquisition priorities – starting with a national evaluation of climate change impacts on existing refuges and acquisition boundaries. It’s critical that we get land acquisition right – and right now – because buying land is a “permanent” investment. Lands and waters that contribute to native wildlife diversity and ecological integrity, provide corridors for migrating wildlife, or serve as new habitat for range-shifting species should be the focus of tomorrow’s acquisitions.

Finally, we must establish clear benchmarks to measure successes or failures in achieving our goals, and the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Office of Management and Budget must support the monitoring budget to back them up. This vision can be achieved even as we face tightening budgets, but we must operate with greater efficiency by identifying priorities, streamlining efforts and leveraging resources through expanded partnerships. With staff and partners who are among the most dedicated I have encountered throughout my career, I have every confidence that by working together we can transform the refuge system for a new era of conservation.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, Executive Vice President, Defenders of Wildlife