As birders we all know the importance of wetlands to the vast diversity of birds and other wildlife we enjoy observing. The U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service reports 59,000 acres of wetlands are lost annually throughout the U. S. as a result of draining and land conversion. Over the past 200 years in excess of 50% of the wetlands that once existed here are now gone. Unfortunately, the trend continues. Perhaps one bright spot is the National Refuge System that has grown from the very first refuge (5.5 acres on Pelican Island, FL) established in 1903 to a current total of 550 refuges encompassing nearly 150 million acres.
Much of this protected habitat consists of tidal and freshwater marshes and forested wetlands reported to support in excess of 1,350 vertebrate species: over 700 birds, 200 mammals, 250 reptiles and amphibians, and 200 fishes. More than 200 refuges were setup specifically to provide migrating birds with breeding, resting, and winter habitats. Fifty-nine refuges have been established with the primary purpose of conserving endangered and threatened species. In 1995, it was estimated that 27.1 million people visited national refuges to birdwatch, hunt, fish, photgraph wildlife, and/or participate in a variety of educational activities. The majority of these visitors are non-consumptive users (i.e. do not participate in hunting or fishing). No doubt public use of these areas has increased since then and will continue to do so into the future.
Wetlands within the refuge system were largely acquired through dollars collected by the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps (a.k.a. fedral duck stamps). Since 1934, when duck stamps first went on sale, over $700 million has been collected and has purchesed or leased 5.2 million acres of wetland habitat. While all waterfowl hunters are required to purchase an annual duck stamp at a bargain price of $15, others using refuges, including birders do not need to do so. Sure, many national refuges charge access fees ranging from $3 to $5 per vehicle-visit, but purchasing a duck stamp is an all around better deal. So if you bird refuges as much as I do the initial cost of the stamp is quickly paid off and recouped many times over the course of the year. And more importantly 98 cents of every stamp dollar is used to conserve more wetlands thereby benefiting birds, wildlife, and birders. I encourage all birders to purchase a stamp annually if you are not now doing so. It is an inexpensive investment in protecting these critical areas and the many bird species dependent on them. Stamps may be purchased from your local post office and give you "free" access to national wildlife refuges from July 1 through June 30 annually. That's a deal no frugal "Yankee" in his/her right mind can pass up.