Remarks by Director Jamie Rappaport Clark, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the: 2000 annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology

Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you today as you're discussing some of the most pressing challenges to the fate of conservation in our country today. This morning, I'd like to discuss two topics that are very relevant to conservation biology and to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The first one is ecosystem conservation, an idea that ties in with the theme of this year's annual meeting. The second is our National Wildlife Refuge System, the only network of federal lands dedicated to the conservation of fish, wildlife, and plants.

Secretary Babbitt has warned that the cause of conservation will be forever lost if our refuges become just islands in a sea of development. I have seen that sea surge over the years and I appreciate the urgency of his warning. For the past 7 years, I've lived in Loudoun County, Virginia, one of the fastest growing areas in the nation. Since I've been there, I have seen my neighborhood transformed from a rural, one-stoplight town to a still-growing suburb with a highway running through it. Gone is the wonderful habitat for ovenbirds, woodcock, and tree frogs. Gone is the contiguous forest lands for white-tailed deer and other species.

It is a disturbing trend. Booming population growth is fueling urban sprawl, contributing to skyrocketing rates of habitat loss all over this country. From where I sit in the Director's chair, I see the consequences in depressing black and white . . . in the form of increasing listing actions for endangered and threatened species, with the number one reason for their endangerment being habitat fragmentation and loss.

If we are to keep the best of what is left from drowning in development, we must adopt an ecosystem approach to conservation. We must look at entire landscapes. We must practice conservation in a way that accounts for all the relationships on the land -- not only the ecological ones, but the human ones, as well.

We've certainly learned that Aldo Leopold's admonition to "think like a mountain" is easier said than done. While ecosystem theory sounds wonderful on paper, it presents many practical challenges for those trying to implement it.

First, there are the obvious institutional challenges of trying to define manageable organizational units to work within. At the Service, we struggled with the issue of how to define ecosystems from a land manager's point of view. That meant drawing lines on a map. But how do you map an ecosystem that, for example, has a wide-ranging migratory bird species as a vital element or major water courses connecting across political lines? We finally decided to base our ecosystems on watersheds. Using U.S. Geological Survey maps, the Service identified 53 watershed-based ecosystems across the nation. These are huge, landscape areas like the Chesapeake Bay, the Upper Missouri, and the Columbia River Basin.

We realize this is not a perfect choice. There are other ideas being promoted. But I believe our watershed approach best suits the Service at this time because watersheds have clearly defined and generally accepted boundaries that enable our land managers to get their arms around them, because many species depend on aquatic and wetland habitats for their survival, and because watershed areas are of utmost relevance to a wildlife management agency.

Once we defined our ecosystems, the next challenge involved restructuring the Fish and Wildlife Service to properly administer these 53 watersheds. Traditionally, the Service has organized along programmatic lines: Endangered Species, Habitat Conservation, Fisheries, Migratory Birds, and Refuges, to name just a few. Because of this structure, issues have generally been defined along program lines -- as a refuge problem, an endangered species problem, or a fisheries problem. Under the ecosystem approach, our challenge is to bring our best expertise to bear on the problems facing 53 watersheds. To encourage cross-program interaction, we grouped field personnel from all our different programs into ecosystem teams, one for each watershed. This team approach has really improved interdisciplinary collaboration. It also has improved effectiveness and efficiency as the team members have leveraged limited resources and expertise for improved results on the ground. This approach has truly resulted in a sum that is greater than its individual parts. A recently completed employee survey found widespread support for the ecosystem concept and the efforts of the teams and we are continually looking for ways to strengthen the capabilities of and support of the teams in the field. We have realized the incredible strength of working together on the ground and have been able to accomplish far more for the resource than if our programs worked independently.

The teams have also been well received by external groups. In the area of partnership building, our ecosystem approach has made remarkable progress. It has not only strengthened our relationships with traditional conservation partners, like conservation groups and state wildlife agencies, but also with groups who, for the most part, have not always seen eye-to-eye with us. Let me share a case with you that illustrates this point.

The Attwater's prairie chicken is one of the most, if not the most endangered bird in North America, with only about 50 individuals known to exist in the wild. Thirty of those are found on the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, just one hour's drive west of Houston, Texas. In a state like Texas, where 97 percent of the land is in private hands, our efforts to save the Attwater's prairie chicken need to extend beyond the 9,200 acre national wildlife refuge. That was the daunting challenge facing the refuge staff and the Texas Gulf Coast ecosystem team. In response, the refuge joined with endangered species staff to develop a 50/50 cost share program for private landowners. This program has been extremely successful with ranchers, since habitat for the Attwater's prairie chicken provides forage for cattle. Landowners who participate in this strictly volunteer program receive federal monies for half the cost of habitat restoration work on their property. In exchange, they agree to a 10 year management plan that includes prescribed burning, specialized grazing routines, and fence posting. So far, 14 landowners have signed up, and 60,000 acres of Attwater's prairie chicken habitat is being restored as a result. Five additional landowners are on a waiting list, pending the availability of additional funds to restore 9,000 more acres.

This program works because it provides a service to the landowner; in this case, financing and expertise. It forges a powerful partnership because it actively engages the landowner in the conservation project. In the case of the Attwater's prairie chicken, this is especially fortunate. Our captive breeding program is looking for a site to establish another population and thanks to the program many landowners have expressed interest in volunteering their property for the release of captive-bred Attwater's prairie chickens. One landowner even has plans to open up a bed and breakfast for eco-tourists to come and see North America's most imperiled bird. Without this kind of creativity along the Texas coast, I know what the future of this incredible bird would be, and it isn't good at all.

These kinds of partnerships, where locals are actively involved in conservation activities, are becoming increasingly common thanks in large part to programs being pioneered by the Service and its partners. These include joint ventures under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, and Endangered Species programs, such as Habitat Conservation Plans, Safe Harbor Agreements, and Candidate Conservation Agreements. What these programs do is give public and private landowners the vehicles to get involved in habitat restoration and conservation planning at the landscape level and they provide focus and incentives to accomplish conservation objectives that could not be completed by any one entity alone.

Of course, these programs rely heavily on sound science. I hope that many of you will take a good look what we're doing in the Fish and Wildlife Service; how we are addressing our mandate for landscape conservation, and find ways to contribute. As always, we welcome constructive criticism, but we also expect more from conservation biologists. We expect you to help us find solutions. I realize that some of the Endangered Species Act administrative reforms have generated debate among conservationists. Some have described them as compromises we can ill afford. They might not be the perfect solution, but they do enable us to take action and save what habitat we can right now before it, too, is gone, swallowed up in that sea of development. And for many species, there is not much time left.

I assure you, though, that we are listening to your concerns. In response, we have incorporated adaptive management into many of our agreements with private landowners. But for adaptive management to work, we need conservation biologists to help us forecast problem areas, identify troubleshooting solutions, to advise us where we can take some chances, and to help us course correct along the way.

Right now, conservation biologists have a perfect opportunity to get involved in our ecosystem approach work. We have almost 93 million acres of land spread across this country in our more than 520 unit National Wildlife Refuge System. The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 requires each National Wildlife Refuge to develop a comprehensive conservation plan. These plans provide the blueprint for management of the refuge and specifically identify how each will accomplish it's "Wildlife First" mission. The Service welcomes the participation of outside scientists in this endeavor. Help us as we develop our plans. Help us devise ways to monitor and evaluate our progress. Help our land mangers identify biological goals and objectives. In the back of the room there are copies of an article that appeared in Conservation Biology last June, entitled "The Ecosystem Approach from a Practical Point of View." It describes the Service's ecosystem approach and provides telephone numbers to our regional offices. I encourage you to take a copy and to call a regional office and offer your expertise.

Right now, the sea of development might seem unstoppable. Its tide is lapping at the boundaries of refuges like Arctic in Alaska and Okefenokee in Georgia. But we can turn the tide. We can make refuges the cores for community conservation and thus models for a land ethic that radiates into the landscape around them, just like we've done at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. It is going to take more than the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Society for Conservation Biology to make this happen. It is going to take the will of people everywhere. And that is why as conservation biologists we must take on another challenge: to reach out to people and educate them. Let them know that they, too, are wildlife managers. The land decisions everyone of us makes affects the landscape we live on. If we can educate and motivate people to make smart choices when they interact with the land, we can ensure healthy landscapes and a secure future for our national wildlife refuges.

Only by joining with others can we leave a lasting legacy. I invite you to join us at our refuges. Let us make a strong start there, on some of America's best wild lands. Let us realize the potential of our refuges to be the laboratories, the classrooms, the core of community based conservation efforts. Let us teach and excite people about the land ethic. If we can do that, we will have truly revolutionized land management. I hope that history will remember us for what we left of the land rather than what we built on it. It is up to us to make the difference. It is up to us to turn the tide.