Commentary: Fish and wildlife heritage is now more protected

By Aurelia Skipwith

I want Delawareans to know about some historic legislation that was signed this month in Washington. This is very personal to me, not just because I am the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but because as a young woman who grew up in a family involved in hunting and fishing, I see this legislation as protecting my family heritage.

On Aug. 4, President Donald Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act. It is a great conservation achievement and would not have happened without his leadership and the strong support of Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Chris Coons, D-Del., as well as Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., successfully cementing their conservation legacy for all time.

The Great American Outdoors Act provides permanent funding to the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year, which is derived from royalties paid by energy companies drilling for oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf. The funding will be used to conserve public lands and support outdoor recreation across the country.

Aurelia Skipwith

It will also use funds derived from annual revenues from energy development on federal lands and waters to provide $9.5 billion over the next five years to tackle deferred maintenance projects on public lands around the country. This legislation will enable the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address a backlog of maintenance issues that will enhance the National Wildlife Refuge System for current and future generations of Americans.

The Great American Outdoors Act could not have come at a better time for the country. As we persevere through the COVID-19 pandemic, the public has found refuge in nature, particularly within our national wildlife refuges, which have remained open during this difficult time. Our national wildlife refuges across the country provide an unparalleled opportunity for Americans to experience nature and recreate outdoors.

Founded in 1903, the National Wildlife Refuge System is a diverse network of lands and waters dedicated to conserving America’s fish and wildlife resources. It serves a purpose distinct from other public lands — focusing on wildlife conservation and wildlife-dependent recreation.

Our American heritage — hunting and fishing, as well as other wildlife-dependent recreational activities like hiking, bird-watching, nature photography and environmental education — brings families together, creating jobs and supporting local communities.

In Delaware, $4.3 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund has already conserved lands and waters for outdoor recreation and wildlife conservation at Bombay Hook and Prime Hook national wildlife refuges. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to increasing access for all Americans to these cherished places. Located a short drive from Dover, these refuges offer ideal gateways for visitors and residents to engage in outdoor recreation and conservation in Delaware. These world-class national wildlife refuges are known for coastal marshes and waters abundant with birds during spring migration to the delight of bird-watchers, but also provide a multitude of opportunities for people to enjoy fishing, hunting, hiking and the outdoors in the nation’s First State.

All Americans will feel the benefits of the Great American Outdoors Act. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hosted more than 50 million visitors, and their spending generated more than $3 billion in sales in local economies, supporting over 41,000 jobs.

The Great American Outdoors Act will provide additional funding to address the refuge system’s deferred maintenance backlog, which had grown to nearly $1.4 billion. Nationwide, the service alone is responsible for over $46 billion in constructed real property assets that include over 25,000 structures, as well as nearly 14,000 roads, bridges and dams. The Great American Outdoors Act will ensure that the American public can safely visit public lands and enjoy their natural heritage for generations to come.

Aurelia Skipwith is the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She was first nominated to the position by President Trump in 2018 and is the first African American to hold the position.