It is no coincidence that the Smithsonian Book of National Wildlife Refuges (2003; Smithsonian Institution Press; 258 pp; color photographs and illustrations; index; $39.95 hardcover), by Eric Jay Dolin, was published in the same year as the Centennial celebration of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS or refuge system). The book (hereafter referred to as SBNWR) serves as one of the celebration year’s high points. It also provides us with a uniquely American story of how it became possible that a network of lands and waters became dedicated specifically to wildlife conservation in 538 refuges, containing 95 million acres. Dolin’s writing and the many excellent color photographs by John and Karen Hollingsworth, in fact, provide an opportunity for the reader to feel proud of our country as a world leader in conservation. Of course, the situation was much different for a long time 100 years ago.
While chapter 1, “A National Treasure,” provides a quick overview of the refuge system as it stands today, chapter 2 , “From Abundance to Scarcity,” soon shows that the need for such a system was a direct result of wildlife habitat destruction and the over-exploitation of wildlife from market and sport hunting. By the late 1800s, in the midst of a period Dolin refers to as the “Age of Extermination,” wildlife in America was in deep trouble. Once abundant species such as the passenger pigeon and American bison were nearing extinction, the feather trade was taking its toll on a variety of birds, and waterfowl were declining from habitat destruction and insufficiently regulated hunting. With America and its demands for resources expanding, it became increasingly clear that a broad-based nationwide solution was long overdue.
Indeed, the federal government was deemed to be the solution in this case essentially because migratory birds cross state lines and state wildlife conservation laws were inconsistent or non-existent. In chapters 3, 4, and 5, Dolin reviews the multiple origins of a conservation ethic (from Henry David Thoreau to John Muir) that would result in the mobilization of hunters, birdwatchers, ornithologists, and influential politicians to promote strong federal wildlife protection laws. Dolin clearly shows how many factors became aligned at just the right time for President Theodore Roosevelt to create, by executive order, the first federal refuge, the Pelican Island Reservation, on March 14, 1903. Of course, factors such as recognition of necessity, political feasibility, and political will did not spontaneously align.
Dolin shows the important roles played by many individuals working through avenues such as the American Ornithologists Union (AOU), Audubon societies, the Boone and Crockett Club (an elitist hunting group formed by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell), and Field and Stream magazine. The early role of the Audubon societies in the creation and management of National Wildlife Refuges cannot be overstated. One example of this was when the Florida Audubon Society paid the salary of Pelican Island Reservation’s first game warden and purchased a motorboat for his use. Dolin also highlights over and over how dedicated individuals overcame institutional obstacles by creative means. For example, he notes that “In the depths of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, the political fortunes of the refuge system took a sharp turn for the better…,” due not in a small way to actions taken by uniquely effective individuals such a Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling and John Clark Salyer II.
Though SBNWR was obviously produced to project a positive view of the refuge system to help us celebrate the accomplishments of 100 years of conservation, Dolin does not shy away from examining problems and controversies. Chapter 10, “Conflict, Controversy, and Compromise,” chapter 12, “Searching for Direction,” and chapter 13, “Growing and Losing Ground” in combination hold nothing back while illustrating the stresses and strains the refuge system has been under.
Beyond stating the obvious problems of inadequate levels of funding and staffing, Dolin examines issues such as oil and gas exploration on refuge lands, toxic contamination of refuges from previous uses, and inappropriate activities that have been allowed on refuges. Probably the most shocking cases of these issues include the use of certain refuge lands for military practice and, in one instance, for the detonation of nuclear bombs (at Amchitka Island, part of the Aleutian Island Refuge in Alaska) in 1965. These sobering chapters provide important perspectives that should not be forgotten in our celebrations. At the same time, the many artistically rendered photographs liberally spread throughout the book keep the author’s message from straying too far into the negative.
Many folks that I have spoken to about National Wildlife Refuges are surprised to learn that hunting may be permitted on any refuge as long as it does not conflict with the refuge’s purposes. Years ago, my first reaction to this issue was also confusion, as I assumed the word “refuge” meant that whatever was within the borders of a wildlife refuge was protected from danger (as in “to seek refuge from the storm”). Dolin presents the facts of the hunting issue in a non-biased was so that both refuge hunting opponents and proponents should be satisfied, allowing the reader to make his or her own evaluation.
As SBNWR shows, the hunting constituency, without a doubt, had much to do with the initiation and growth of the refuge system and, in fact, beginning in 1934, money from “duck stamps” purchased by hunters has been used to acquire new refuge lands. But Dolin also emphasizes that the refuge system has evolved in many ways since the early days when the main emphasis overwhelmingly tended to be on big game species and waterfowl-related management.
Chapter 11, “New Roles and Responsibilities,” shows how an increased public awareness of environmental issues and the resulting federal legislation—such as the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997—have required managers to set new priorities. Managers also need to adapt to changing societal values. For example, hunting and fishing are now equally recognized with wildlife observation, photography, environmental education, and interpretation as compatible uses of the NWRS. To highlight how refuge management is being shifted toward ecosystem-level management, Dolin briefly reviews the influence of the landmark 1999 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report “Fulfilling the Promise,” in which the future direction of the NWRS was charted.
Chapter 14, “Turning the Refuge System Around,” sets the stage for an uplifting and positive ending to the book. Then chapter 15, “Profiles in Beauty,” presents a review of eight refuges that illustrate conservation success stories as well as challenges managers face while attempting to maintain National Wildlife Refuges as “anchors of biodiversity” (a term used as part of the vision for the refuge system, as outlined in “Fulfilling the Promise”).
As might be expected, Dolin states in chapter 16, “Conclusion,” that the refuge system’s “…future looks bright.” He notes that the outreach being undertaken during Centennial celebrations is expected to do much to increase the public’s awareness of the refuge system, and with awareness comes public support and ultimately political support and funding. Of course, from its inception with Theodore Roosevelt, the National Wildlife Refuge System has been a political animal. The ability to utilize our American political system to benefit nature is just one of our nation’s great strengths.
Review by Thomas V. Lerczak
[This review was originally published in Illinois Audubon magazine, Winter 2003-2004, Number287, pages 12-15.]