Monday, August 28, 2006

Florida Panther NWR faces more cuts

Struggling refuges face more cuts
Managers expecting continued cutbacks in federal budget — and group says 80 positions will be put on the chopping block

By Jeremy Cox

Monday, August 28, 2006

Layne Hamilton resisted the idea of managing two wildlife refuges from the third floor of a hotel near an Interstate 75 off-ramp until she saw the advantages.

The Comfort Inn and Suites on Collier Boulevard is halfway between Florida Panther and Ten Thousand Islands national wildlife refuges. Every hotel guest she meets in the elevator or lobby is a potential refuge visitor. And the continental breakfast is always free.

Making do is a large part of what Hamilton does as the manager of two refuges in the western Everglades that are high on natural beauty and low on money. It's about to get tougher.

With the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina recovery topping the federal priority list, National Wildlife Refuge managers across the country are looking to the future with continued cutbacks in mind. In June, high-level managers across the refuge system's Southeast region formed a planning team to decide where reductions could be made if funding stays flat over the next three years.

Since 80 percent of the operating budget lies in staff salaries, people are the first to go, Hamilton said. The group concluded that 80 positions at local refuge offices will be put on the chopping block.

Hamilton is struggling to figure out where the ax should fall. Her eight-member office staff includes herself, a deputy manager, assistant manager, office assistant, two law enforcement officers (one of the spots is vacant) and two biologists.

"We were already pretty slim before this. I'm going to lose somebody. I just don't know who it is," Hamilton said.

Deferred plans

Funding shortfalls have hit hard lately at the Florida Panther and Ten Thousand Islands refuges. Several projects have been delayed or only exist on paper. A few of them are:

• Purchasing easements on 370,000 acres on the north and west sides of the panther refuge that would have given the endangered cats a buffer from farms and fast-growing Golden Gate Estates. The refuge's conservation plan calls for paying $150 million for the land by 2010, but a lack of funding and willing sellers has doomed the project, Hamilton said.

• Building an environmental education center to be shared with Fakahatchee Strand State Forest, the panther refuge's neighbor to the south.

• A sea turtle monitoring program in the Ten Thousand Islands that ended after the 2003 nesting season because of its annual $27,000 cost. The program also included trapping and removing raccoons that preyed on the buried eggs.

Panthers get a safe haven

As its name suggests, the 24,300-acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge was created to give the big cats a place to roam. The federal government bought the property for $10.3 million in 1989 from two companies that trace their roots to Collier County's founder, Barron Collier.

There are 80 to 100 panthers in the wild, almost all of them in the swampy southwest corner of Florida. The elusive, territorial species is running out of room in South Florida as new subdivisions and highways creep into its habitat.

Nearly nine months into this year, biologists have documented eight radio-collared adult panthers and seven kittens in the refuge.

The refuge sits about 20 miles east of Naples on the north side of Interstate 75. The region offers a mosaic of land cover preferred by deer, panthers' favorite prey. The swampy spread provides an important travel corridor for panthers in Fakahatchee Strand, Big Cypress National Preserve to the east and Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest to the north, Hamilton said.

"They all seem to intersect right on the refuge," she added.

The panther refuge was closed to the public until last year, when a 1.3-mile walking trail opened in its southeast corner. A small brown sign facing State Road 29 that isn't visible to vehicles until they have almost passed it is the only indication of what lies behind the chain-link fence.

Far from public view, refuge biologist Larry Richardson operates a greenhouse where he is trying to raise dozens of rare orchid species for re-introduction. Elsewhere, a wooden cabin that was knocked slightly off kilter during Hurricane Wilma in October might be razed to make way for a modern education center — a rare perk made possible by hurricane recovery money.

The panther refuge is protected but not pristine.

Ditches along the side of State Road 29 and I-75 drain too much water off the refuge. Farm fields north of the property turn on noisy pumps after heavy rains to dump nutrient-loaded storm water into the reserve. An agreement forged at the refuge's creation makes it legal.

The government doesn't own the oil and mineral rights beneath the preserve, so Barron Collier's descendants could drill for oil one day. They haven't shown an interest in doing that, Hamilton said, but there are two abandoned oil platforms on the refuge that are a testament to its industrial past and possible future.

Deserted islands

The Ten Thousand Islands refuge is an even more bare-bones operation. The 35,000-acre refuge stretches from Goodland east to Port of the Islands and as far north as U.S. 41 East. There are no highway signs anywhere to note its existence.

In 1996, the same Collier family swapped land that became part of the Ten Thousand Islands refuge, Big Cypress National Preserve and the Florida Panther refuge for 68 acres of Interior Department Indian school land in Phoenix.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the refuge system, depends on crews at the nearby Rookery Bay national reserve to oversee part of the refuge.

Duck hunters flock to the north end of the refuge in the fall to hunt, but an inability to staff the area full time means guns can be toted into the refuge on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.

Next year, Hamilton hopes to use a $780,000 state Department of Transportation grant to build an observation tower and parking lot just south of U.S. 41 along an old oil pad road. Hunters could use the parking lot instead of stopping on the shoulder of the two-lane highway.

Money problems

The Bush administration has recommended $381.7 million to run the nation's 545 refuges during the budget year that begins in October. That is nearly $800,000 less than the 2006 allocation, but the cut is much deeper than it seems, refuge advocates say.

The refuge system needs an additional $16 million annually just to keep pace with mandatory cost-of-living raises for employees and rising rent, utilities and fuel costs. The Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, a 21-member advocacy group that counts such divergent groups as Defenders of Wildlife and the National Rifle Association as members, is urging legislators to pass a $415 million budget.

The president's budget suggested a nearly 20 percent increase in spending at the two refuges Hamilton manages. That $1.3 million is far from guaranteed.

The House has voted to raise National Wildlife Refuge spending to $388.7 million. The Senate appropriations committee sent a bill to the Senate floor with $391.2 million in it. The full Senate is not expected to vote on the spending bill until after the November elections.

Once that happens, the two bills would go to a conference committee to work out the differences.

Calling in the volunteers

As federal money dries up, preserve managers increasingly are turning to volunteers to plug gaps. Last year, an army of volunteers logged 1.3 million work hours with a total dollar value of $22.5 million, the National Wildlife Refuge Association estimates.

The Friends of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge has about 115 members, said Tom Murray, the group's president. He wants to raise that figure to 250 in a year.

Despite the help, refuges across the country have been forced to eliminate one of five employees over the past few years by leaving open positions unfilled and giving older staff members early retirements, said Michael Woodbridge, director of government affairs for the NWRA. Some refuge managers are considering "de-staffing" their parks to concentrate efforts on administration and land management.

"They call it preservation status, but we call it neglected status," Woodbridge said.

More than a third of the nation's wildlife refuges have no staff stationed in the refuges to watch over visitors. That includes the Florida Panther and Ten Thousand Islands refuges.

"If you want to commit a crime, do it on a refuge," Woodbridge said. "There's no one there to stop you."

A growing list of House members is seeking to revive the refuge system. So far, 62 members have signed on to join the National Wildlife Refuge Caucus.

"When you run into big budget deficits, (national park funds) are the first things that are cut," said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, a Democrat, who is leading the drive. "Really, the question is getting things in front of members and staffs. Having a formal working group like a caucus gives me a chance to get information ... to the key staff people."

A day outdoors

As she tromped across the muddy trail at the panther refuge Saturday morning, Assistant Refuge Manager Takako Hashimoto paused at a tangle of greenery that blocked the path in front of her.

"This is new," she said.

About 10 volunteers showed up that morning to clear brush from the trail and plant wax myrtles and wild coffee. Since relocating from Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge four months ago, Hashimoto has made it her mission to develop a dependable base of volunteers.

"It kind of strengthens the ties of the refuge to the community," she said. "When people are aware of these places, they can get involved with the protection and conservation." many_wildlife_refuges_forced_make_cutbacks/

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