USFWS backs off Mississippi refuge plan

By Frederic J. Frommer Associated Press

Washington (AP) – Federal officials are creating a new plan for
protecting the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge
after the original proposal prompted a backlash over restrictions
on hunting, camping, and other uses.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which held 17 hearings and
eight workshops up and down the river since announcing the original
conservation plan in May, will now issue an “alternative” plan in
October. The plan would then be finalized after 45 days of public
comments.

Federal officials say it’s too soon to say how the new plan will
differ from the original one, but they say it will take into
account public comments which included objections to restrictions
on hunting, boating, and public access.

Rep. Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat who objected to some of
those restrictions, said officials will back off on them in the new
plan.

“They realize they have to do that or there will be a public
outcry,” said Kind, a duck hunter with a house on the Mississippi.
“It would make enforceability very difficult, if not impossible,
and they certainly don’t have the money to go out and hire 500 new
agents in the refuge system.”

The USFWS’s goal is to reduce human stress on the river
environment and improve habitat. Controversial elements in the
original plan included limiting overnight camping to main channel
islands and shorelines; restricting speeds on backwater areas to 5
mph; increasing no-hunting zones; and banning anyone with a
blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher from camping.

The conservation plan would lay out regulations through the year
2020 for about 240,000 acres of Mississippi floodplain designated
as a national wildlife refuge.

The refuge stretches about 260 miles from southern Minnesota to
northern Illinois. It’s home to hundreds of species of plants,
fish, and birds, including bald eagles.

The federal Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act of 1997 requires
refuges be managed according to their mission to restore fish,
wildlife, and plants. The act calls for every national refuge to
have a plan by 2012.

Scott Flaherty, a USFWS spokesman based at Ft. Snelling, Minn.,
said more than 2,600 people attended the hearings. Some were
against any change, while others supported the proposed changes in
the original plan, he said.

Most discussion focused on hunting, fishing, beach use, closed
areas, and motorless areas.

“The new plan will probably be a hybrid of options presented in
the original plan plus recommendations from workshops,” Flaherty
said. “It will reflect the input of a lot of people up and down the
river.”

Brad Redlin, Mississippi River coordinator for the Izaak Walton
League of America, said the league supported the original plan.

“Seeking public comment on conservation plans for public lands
is clearly the right thing to do, and responsiveness to those
comments is appropriate and expected,” said Redlin, who is based in
St. Paul. “But the resource itself has no voice to comment. Habitat
protection and scientific principles must be given priority over
present-day public preferences.”

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