National Wildlife Refuge System

This is Phoebe Zimmerman. And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today we tell about an American government agency that protects animals and plants. The National Wildlife Refuge System is celebrating its one-hundredth anniversary this year.

In nineteen-oh-three, the twenty-sixth president of the United States heard about a small island in the state of Florida that had many birds. President Theodore Roosevelt was told that hunters were killing most of the pelicans on the island. He soon decided the nation should protect these beautiful water birds.

President Roosevelt declared the island the first federal protection area for birds. This refuge was named the Pelican Island Reservation. It was established on a very small piece of land in the Indian River Lagoon, near the Atlantic Ocean. The island became the first protected area in what later would become the huge National Wildlife Refuge System.

Today the Wildlife Refuge System is the world's largest land network for managed and protected wildlife. The refuge system is part of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Among other duties, the system enforces the Endangered Species Act. This law protects wildlife threatened with disappearing from Earth. Wildlife refuges also help the environment. They help protect wetlands that control flooding and pollution.

In November, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D-C, will celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System. An exhibition will tell about the protection programs, activities and beautiful sights in the wildlife refuges.

The refuge system has five-hundred-forty centers. They cover more than thirty-eight-million hectares of land and water. Most are open to the public. More than thirty-five-million people visit them every year. Visitors can fish and hunt at more than half of these wildlife centers.

Activists say the refuge system is one of the nation's greatest successes in protecting nature. National wildlife refuges exist in all fifty states and twelve American territories and possessions. Almost all the refuges contain water. Many of these refuges have national parks in their territory.

Theodore Roosevelt served as president from nineteen-oh-one to nineteen-oh-nine. During that time he created fifty-one bird refuges in seventeen states and three territories. He also created five national parks and one-hundred-fifty national forests. Historians say it is especially interesting that President Roosevelt did this. The energetic former soldier was known for hunting large animals. But he also believed that wildlife protection was important. He said Americans should increase the value of their land for the people who come after them. History remembers him as one of America's most important activists for wildlife.

Before President Roosevelt declared Pelican Island a wildlife refuge, both Florida and the federal government had tried to protect America's wildlife. Congress had enacted two laws aimed at wildlife protection. In eighteen-sixty-nine, the lawmakers created a protected area in the Pribilof Islands of Alaska. The goal was to give fur seals a safe place to have their babies.

In eighteen-ninety-four, Congress made it illegal to harm wildlife inside the huge Yellowstone National Park in the western part of the country.

In nineteen-oh-one, a Florida law prevented shooting birds on Pelican Island for their feathers. But people disobeyed this law until President Roosevelt intervened.

Some animals were already threatened with disappearance when President Roosevelt took the first step toward a national conservation agency. For example, many bison had lived in the western part of the country. But by the nineteenth century, hunters had killed hundreds of thousands of these big animals.

Today, most Americans agree that the wildlife protection system is important. Still, the system always faces problems. Currently, one important issue is whether to permit oil exploration in the nation's largest refuge, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. President Bush and some lawmakers believe the United States must have the oil.

Others say drilling in the wildlife refuge would produce very little oil. And they say the process would harm a beautiful wild area and the animals that live there.

Last week, the House of Representatives approved oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Senate had rejected the drilling plan last month.

Money is always a problem for the wildlife refuge system. It is costly to protect areas where plants and animals reproduce or grow. Sometimes private companies help support the National Wildlife Refuge System. For example, a large energy provider called the Southern Company is giving the system one-hundred-thousand dollars. The money will help restore living areas for a number of kinds of birds.

The story of America's first federal protection area for birds began in eighteen-eighty-one. A young man from Germany settled in Sebastian, a town on the east coast of Florida. Paul Kroegel could see Pelican Island from his house. He could see the pelicans with their long, light colored necks and brown bodies. He could see egrets and many other kinds of birds and animals that lived on the island.

But he also saw great numbers of the birds being shot. Most of the hunters were not sportsmen. They wanted the birds' feathers to sell. Women of those days loved to wear hats covered with feathers.

At times, feathers were more valuable than gold. Mr. Kroegel wanted to save the island's birds before they all died out. So he sailed to the island and stood guard with a gun in his hand.

Many bird experts visited Pelican Island. One of these was Frank Chapman, chief of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He discovered that the island was the last area on Florida's east coast for brown pelicans to lay their eggs. Mr. Chapman immediately sought help from the Florida Audubon Society, an organization that protects birds.

The organization hired Mr. Kroegel and three other guards to protect Pelican Island's birds from hunters. But two of the guards were murdered while carrying out their duties.

Mr. Chapman and another bird expert told President Roosevelt about the situation. Soon the island and nearby lands had federal protection. Paul Kroegel was hired as the first national wildlife refuge manager.

Over the years the birds on Pelican Island have survived many threats. Human activities on the water produced waves that reduced the island's shorelines. The island decreased to half its size. In nineteen-sixty-eight, the refuge was expanded to protect nearby islands and wetlands.

In two-thousand, the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies and businesses provided money to restore the refuge. Mangrove trees and plants natural to the area replaced plant life that did not belong there. A lake was added. Experts restored tidal wetlands and a forest.

To protect the island, visitors now watch the birds from the new Centennial Trail on nearby land. The new walking path was built to honor the one-hundredth anniversary of the Pelican Island Reservation and the National Wildlife Refuge System. A tower also has been added so people can look at Pelican Island from above.

Not long ago, a visitor was watching the island late in the day. Many huge birds were spreading their wings and floating against the darkening sky. The visitor said she will never forget that sight.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Caty Weaver. This is Phoebe Zimmerman. And this is Steve Ember. Listen again next week for Explorations, a program in Special English on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English

Source: EXPLORATIONS - April 16, 2003: National Wildlife Refuge System
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