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Oaky Woods Generates Revenue For Houston County

Each year, thousands of visitors to Oaky Woods WMA bring thousands of dollars to Houston County through money spent at stores, restaurants, and hotels. Although no firm local figures are available , a recent report by Ben Jones says that National wildlife refuges, much like state wildlife management areas, more than make up for their cost to taxpayers by returning about $4 in economic activity for every $1 the government spends, according to a federal study.

Overall, the refuges drew some 35 million hunters, anglers, birders and other visitors in 2006, supporting about 27,000 jobs, the study found. The Southeast region, the system's largest division, drew the most visitors - 9.4 million.

Advocates of the system pounced on the results as evidence that budget cuts under President Bush have been ill-advised.

"Refuges are economic engines in local communities. There's no doubt about it," said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president for government affairs at the National Wildlife Refuge Association. "The budget cuts have an impact ... You have people who are going to refuges and there's no staff, or a wildlife drive is closed because it can't be maintained."

Under an ongoing restructuring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is planning to cut 565 jobs from refuges by 2009 - a 20 percent reduction. The plan would leave more than 200 refuges unstaffed.

Tuesday's report, issued by Fish and Wildlife economists, said the areas created some $1.7 billion in economic activity and $185 million in tax revenues.
Fishing and hunting accounted for almost 20 percent of the economic activity.

The report, which relied on a sample of 80 refuges, said more popular refuges boasted economic returns far greater than the average. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, for example, created about $155 in economic activity for every $1 in federal spending.

The report also cited Okefenokee in Georgia, Pea Island in North Carolina and Ding Darling and Merritt Island in Florida as particularly popular.
The national system encompasses 548 refuges and more than 96 million acres in all 50 states.

The refuge budget grew rapidly after Congress passed a landmark improvement bill in 1997. With new land acquisitions and a clearer mandate, the system's funding jumped from $178 million in 1997 to $391 million in 2004.

Recent years have seen stagnant or declining budgets, even as refuge officials say they need $15 million increases just to keep pace with inflation, and a much larger amount to chip away at an estimated $2.5 billion backlog for maintenance and operations.

Fish and Wildlife Director Dale Hall said the budget challenges are "fairly significant" and that "we'd be naive to think that we wouldn't lose some visitation" as a result of eliminating staff and restricting access in some areas.

He said the agency would do its best to explain to decision-makers "that we get a tremendous return on the taxpayer's dollar."

Tina Yerkes, a conservation programs director with Memphis, Tenn.-based Ducks Unlimited, said the study should spur lawmakers to reconsider the program's budget.
"It confirms what we've known all along, that there's great economic value," Yerkes said. "And there's certainly a value beyond that that's more people-oriented: places to go, places to hunt, places to see birds and just enjoy the outdoors."

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