Q&A with USFWS director Steve Williams (continued)


ESPN Outdoors: "This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge system. What are your thoughts on such an important event and the future of the National Wildlife Refuge System in America?"

Steve Williams: "My first thought is that my timing is great! I'm really lucky to be sitting in this chair as the Service celebrates this 100th anniversary. I really do feel fortunate.

"But on a more important note, as we celebrate this 100th anniversary and the refuge system and the great job that has been done, in addition to all of that, I think we need to celebrate the fish and wildlife conservation movement in this country. That has been much larger than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Because we'll have exposure on a local, state and national level, I've encouraged others to celebrate 100 years of wildlife and fisheries conservation, not the least of which is the contributions and efforts from hunters and anglers.

"In the future, we have a renewed interest in putting some dollars into the repair of existing facilities and building visitor centers. I think the refuge system will take on an even more prominent role in getting the conservation message out.

"We have at least one refuge in every state and I dare say a refuge within an hour of every major metropolitan area in the United States.

"I would like to encourage the development of new forms of compatible outdoor recreation on these urban refuges, things like walking and photography. The more people that enjoy these things, the more support there will be for these things."

EO: "Chronic wasting disease has become a buzzword in the past 12 months and for good reason. Where does the CWD battle stand and what can your agency do to help in the fight?"

SW: "I'm very interested in the next couple of months to see where the battle stands. States will hopefully have results back from huge survey results taking place in the country. … We'll have a better understanding of the distribution of CWD across the nation.

"It is a battle and I think we're still coming to grips with how much of a battle it will be.

"As one of our functions, we're a land management agency with our refuges. I want to be sure that our refuges and refuge managers have the wherewithal to assist states with surveying, should chronic wasting disease arrive in that state.

"In the president's budget, a half-million dollars is specifically targeted within the refuge's budget for CWD. To my knowledge, there has been no CWD on any refuge, yet, but I want to be ready should that occur.

"This is primarily a state issue, since deer are a resident species. But on those lands upon which we operate, we want to be good managers.

"As far as the Interior Department goes, Rocky Mountain National Park and Wind Cave National Park both have chronic wasting disease. Last year, the Park Service redirected $1.2 million for a three-year effort of surveillance, testing and compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

"The U.S. Geological Survey, which is the primary provider of science for the Interior Department, redirected a half-million dollars in 2002 to work with state fish and game agencies to work with testing and surveillance.

"In 2003, the fiscal year that we're in now, when Congress passes the budget, we expect that the USGS will pick up another $2.7 million. There are some key members of Congress who have a keen interest in this.

"In the 2004 budget, which the President just unveiled the other day, the USGS requested another $1.25 million to deal with CWD. The Park Service has another $750,000 requested; along with another $500,000 for Fish and Wildlife.

"That's Interior's role. But the Department of Agriculture may be the major player because of their laboratories across the country.

"I'm confident in saying that their budget requests will be approximately $15 million for CWD. They're responsible for bringing major dollars to the table in their role of providing the diagnostic testing for the labs.

"They've stepped up and said, 'We have the labs and the facilities to do it.' A lot, if not all, of the CWD testing is taking place in Ag Department labs."

EO: "What do you see as the most pressing future challenges lying ahead in coming years for American outdoorsmen and women? For your agency? For America's natural resources?"

SW: "I think that some of the most pressing challenges that outdoorsmen and women face is the declining participation rates in outdoors activities.

"That's the number of people actually getting involved in those activities divided by the number of people in the country. That number continues to decline and it has for 20 plus years.

"I think that's a challenge because those who participate are usually the first to provide financial, political and social support for wildlife and fisheries conservation. We have in effect, lost a generation of people.

"We have to get youth, minorities, and women involved in what has traditionally been thought of as male oriented outdoors recreation.

"We need to change that and provide outdoors recreation opportunities for everyone. There are public and private ways to do that.

"That loss threatens our recreational pastimes and our country's natural resources. If you don't love it, you don't advocate for it. We need to look to expose, if not actually involve, more Americans in outdoors recreation.

"For our agency, the challenges that we face include educating and informing the public to the real threats to fish and wildlife resources.

"We're challenged by having to put a lot of energy and dollars into lawsuits, court deadlines and settlement agreements that are imposed on us by the courts in regards to threatened and endangered species.

"I would love to see the day when that time and money could be spent towards developing recovery plans for those species. As it is right now, we spend a lot of time and money dealing with lawsuits that don't always benefit the one's whose names appear on the documents. Those dollars need to be going into the ground.

"As far as our natural resources are concerned, we must involve people so that they will understand the importance of fish and wildlife conservation in America.

"That's a heck of a challenge, but we have thousands of private conservation groups, 50 state wildlife and fishery agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help in that endeavor.

"If we can meet our funding issues, I think all of that other stuff would take care of itself. If the money would flow, the support would be there, and help would exist to help us in our mission.

"With the budget that is on the streets, when I look at the increases, where they are and how we've tried to involve the American people, I have hope."