U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grpwing operations crisis within the National Wildlife Refuge System
TESTIMONY OF H. DALE HALL, DIRECTOR, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR, BEFORE THE HOUSE RESOURCES SUBCOMMITTEE ON FISHERIES AND OCEANS, REGARDING MANAGEMENT OF THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE SYSTEM
July 20, 2006
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I am Dale Hall, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). I appreciate the opportunity to provide testimony on the management efforts being conducted across the National Wildlife Refuge System (Refuge System). I would like to thank you and the Subcommittee for your years of support for the Refuge System. Our goal is to ensure that the mission of the Refuge System is accomplished in a manner consistent with the President’s budget and management agenda.
Our objective is to conserve, manage, and restore fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats, as well as provide quality wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities that foster wildlife conservation for the enjoyment of future generations. It takes many fields of expertise working together to fulfill the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System, from hydrologists and biologists to visitor service specialists, law enforcement officers and wildland firefighters. The work is complex and spans many scientific, environmental, regulatory and social frameworks.
The Service, like many federal agencies, is constantly adapting its management to ensure the Refuge System accomplishes its mission. This includes increasing work with partners and other Service programs that share the same goals of conserving and restoring fish and wildlife.
Since 2001, funding for the Refuge System has increased from $300 million to $383 million in FY 2006, an overall increase of $83 million, or 28 percent. The increase was primarily targeted at the System’s highest priorities including invasive species control, borderland security, and maintenance needs at targeted refuges. Last year the Service completed a study of refuge funding from FY 2001 to 2004 which indicated field station operational budgets rose by 30 percent. Because of the targeted nature of these increases, 201 field stations examined saw an increase in operations above inflation, and 86 stations had flat or declining operations budgets after factoring in inflationary costs.
In light of the larger federal budget situation and higher costs for fuel, electricity, supplies, and repairs, the coming years are going to be tight for the Refuge System. This challenge, however, presents an excellent opportunity to help the Service manage the Refuge System and each refuge better and more effectively while meeting the President’s Management Agenda goal of managing for outcome-based performance. The Service will need to redouble its efforts to achieve additional efficiencies and explore new ways to manage the Refuge System to ensure the mission is accomplished and performance goals are achieved.
To more proactively and efficiently manage this challenge, in recent years the Service has taken steps to deliver the Refuge System’s mission in a performance-driven, priority-based manner. These steps have included embracing strategic planning from the Department of the Interior and Service leadership, distilling and focusing on projects Americans expect from the Refuge System, and implementing budget and performance systems that enable prudent management. The Refuge System has also taken steps to improve performance, including developing a five year strategic plan which integrates new performance measures and establishes performance targets; developing a process and schedule for independent program evaluations; and linking individual employee performance plans with goal-related performance targets for each fiscal year. Many of these efforts are the direct result of the Administration’s review of the program through the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). The Refuge System fared well on the purpose and management sections of the PART, but poorly on its strategic planning and results sections. Since that time the efforts mentioned above have helped to improve management of the Refuge System so that it now effectively delivers the services expected by the public, and does so with an efficiency and performance-minded organizational culture.
Additionally, the Service is already examining how future budgets may impact achieving the mission and goals of the Refuge System. Several of the Service’s regions are already considering management options. In addition, the Service is currently reviewing all programs in order to develop a long-term workforce plan.
This year, we have begun a systematic analysis of the operational budget for each individual field station, looking at only core base funding that remains on station year to year. Through this analysis, we have found that the operational mix varies greatly, with some field stations spending more than 90 percent of their budget solely on salaries and benefits, leaving limited funding for operational capability.
For years the Service has balanced the number of staff positions and operational capability within the available budget of the Refuge System. As the Refuge System focuses on achieving performance goals and addressing the highest priorities, the Service must evaluate the appropriate number and distribution of staff throughout the system. In addition, each refuge will be evaluated and managed based on mission objectives of the Improvement Act, performance, as well as other competing priorities and local factors. One successful effort has been the complexing of refuges in some regions in order to gain efficiencies in deploying staff and consolidating equipment. Complexing of refuges involves combining staff and resources for several refuge units in close proximity, rather than dividing staff and resources among each refuge. While complexing may lead to reduced or reassigned staff on some refuges, the goal is to ensure the Refuge System mission is accomplished, and provide the most important services and wildlife-dependent recreation opportunities to the public. Based on the Service’s experience with previously complexed refuges, the Service believes that this approach is preferable and more responsible than simply not filling vacant staff positions.
The Service is currently analyzing complexing additional stations including reviewing which refuges need to retain staff in order to achieve the Refuge System mission and performance goals. Some refuges may be identified to be remotely managed and may have some or all of their positions transferred or consolidated to ensure operational capability at the overall refuge complex. Some of the refuges that are remotely managed may experience impacts, such as increased delay in responding to local issues and challenges. The Service, however, will draw on its experience with the 116 current refuge complexes to avoid and address these impacts as quickly and effectively as possible. The Service believes complexing of refuges is a necessary course of action and anticipates a net benefit across the Refuge System through administrative efficiencies of scale, enabling staff to accomplish similar tasks for a complex of refuges rather than just one. The Service plans to continually evaluate managing through complexing to ensure refuge operation needs and maintenance plans are addressed. The Service will continue to consult with Congress as we conduct these processes.
In addition to expanding the use of refuge complexes, the use of “service zones” to deliver services across National Wildlife Refuges is being explored to increase efficiency. Options under consideration include: Administrative officer zones, facility manager zones, and mapping service zones. The Service already utilizes a zone concept for refuge law enforcement and heavy equipment operations. The Service’s experience using the zone concept has yielded positive results and efficiencies. For example, zone law enforcement officers have been deployed in a manner that allows full time officers to shift from station to station depending upon needs; and heavy equipment operators have been formed into mobile teams that can deploy specialized heavy equipment and operators at the appropriate time to accomplish projects at refuges that do not have an equipment operator on staff. Other options may also be considered and utilized as situations may warrant.
It is the Service’s intention to provide open communications and strong relationships with the visiting public and Friends organizations that have proven to be so vital to our refuges. Indeed, the Service has increasingly found that the Refuge System cannot accomplish its mission without the many Friends Groups and thousands of volunteers. Additionally, the Refuge System has also found that other Service programs and other federal agency programs are important to accomplishing the mission and goals of the Refuge System. For example, the Refuge System is currently working with the Service’s fisheries, habitat conservation, migratory birds, and endangered species programs to develop performance goals and targets. Also, in conjunction with other federal agencies the Service is working to coordinate and better integrate management of marine areas within refuges, in accordance with the President’s Ocean Action Plan. Efforts such as these will reduce duplication of effort, improve management, and help better conserve and restore fish and wildlife.
The Service recognizes the fiscal and management challenges ahead, but believes that by focusing on priorities and achieving performance results, we will be able to accomplish the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System to conserve, manage, and restore fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans. As we move forward, it is our intention to be open and transparent about any management changes.
Thank you for the opportunity to present this testimony. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have at this time.