Last week was National Wildlife Refuge Week. Considering the lack of support our refuges get from Congress, you’d be forgiven for not noticing. 

Over the past several years, our national wildlife refuges – homes to bald eagles, American alligators, grey wolves and too many other iconic species to name – have been systematically starved of money and staff. Many are already less open to the public than they were a few short years ago, and others are less able to protect vulnerable species than they’ve ever been. If we don’t reverse course soon, the United States won’t be the worldwide beacon of conservation it is today. 

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Since President Theodore Roosevelt created a federal bird refuge on Pelican Island, Florida, in 1903, the Refuge System has evolved into something unique among public lands. Unlike the recreational focus of national parks or the multiple use mandates of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, the National Wildlife Refuge System exists to prevent the catastrophic loss of our most productive and biologically diverse ecosystems, including those harboring imperiled wildlife protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

We have plowed or paved 99 percent of our tallgrass prairies, cut down 95 percent of our old growth forests, and filled in more than half of our wetlands in the lower 48 states. In many areas National Wildlife Refuges protect what little remains. In my home state of Arizona, Refuges along the Colorado River contain the remnants of desert wetlands and cottonwood-willow forests that once dominated the river’s floodplain, along with the fish and birds that need them for survival. The Kofa and Cabeza Prieta Refuges are home to desert bighorn sheep and Sonoran pronghorn. These beautiful landscapes wouldn’t be intact today without the Refuge System. 

Wildlife Refuges historically enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and from groups as diverse as the National Audubon Society and National Rifle Association. In recent years, however, House Republicans have insisted on budget cuts that are crippling the Refuge system. Since 2011, the Refuge system has lost 430 employees – more than 12 percent of its workforce. 

That loss has had real repercussions. Kilauea Point in Hawaii – America’s most visited Refuge – must shut its gates to the public two days a week, and hard-fought progress in restoring native vegetation has disappeared. Rocky Mountain Arsenal – an urban Refuge in the shadow of the Denver skyline – cannot provide basic tours to school children hoping to catch a glimpse of an American bison or bald eagle. 

Simply by fulfilling their original purpose of making wildlife more abundant, Wildlife Refuges have become tourism destinations. If we want Refuges to continue playing this new role Congress has to stop starving them of resources, particularly in the face of the difficult wildlife management challenges posed by climate change. 

Without adequate funding for Wildlife Refuges, the costs of protecting and recovering species listed under the ESA – both in terms of habitat conservation and delayed recovery – will be borne increasingly by states, industry, and private landowners.

Refuges and related businesses supported 35,000 jobs and generated $2.4 billion in sales in 2013 according to the 2014 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Banking on Nature report. A 2011 study valued Refuge ecosystem services like clean water, flood control, and carbon storage at more than $32 billion.  

The Republican-led government shutdown of 2013 locked tens of thousands of Americans out of their favorite hunting, fishing, hiking, and paddling spots, hammering local communities that depend on a strong outdoor economy. We can’t repeat that, either with another shutdown or with years of slow-motion budget cuts. 

National Wildlife Refuges preserve and restore key pieces of our natural heritage, fuel local economies, and provide unparalleled outdoor opportunities. They are America’s insurance policy for nature. Congress should make it easier, not harder, for Americans to enjoy these benefits.

Grijalva represents Arizona’ 3rd Congressional District and has served in the House since 2003. He sits on the Education and the Workforce Committee and is the ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee.