Coastline Pilot/LA TIMES
Chasing the Muse
Silvery light caresses the surface of a tranquil sea, while in the shore-strewn kelp, stout-legged birds rummage for breakfast. It’s the season for migratory layovers, and the black-breasted plover and the ruddy and black turnstones have begun their short stay at the edge of our shoreline refuge.
They join the sandpipers and gulls along the tidewaters, tossing bits of discarded plant life into the air as they search for aquatic insects and worms. I relish the opportunity to share our refuge, and ponder the vast distances of their journeys.
Breeding habitats for both plover and turnstone are the low-lying tundra of Alaska and the Hudson Bay region of Canada. Their vacation with us is merely a brief pause on journeys south and east, in some cases, as far as the coasts of Paraguay and Argentina.
What strikes me, as I ponder the incredible distances of their migrations, is the tremendous value of the Wildlife Refuge System as a support system in their continued survival. The essence of successful seasonal migration is that a return trip, between two localities, provides the birds with suitable conditions for their survival at different times of the year. It is necessary that they find clean and abundant food and water, and that they are guaranteed sanctuary.
It was 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt set aside the first national wildlife refuge on Florida’s Pelican Island. His intention was to protect a bird species that was being hunted to the brink of extinction for their beautiful plumes. The refuge system has grown to now encompass some 95 million acres of pristine land and water. These are places of both permanent residence, and a stopover for migratory birds and mammals.
Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is an agency within the Department of the Interior, the Refuge System contains 540 refuges and 3,000 waterfowl production areas. It is the world’s largest system of lands and waters whose primary purpose is the conservation of wildlife and habitat.
During the first century of its existence, the Refuge System was managed as a collection of islands, rather than as an integrated network of ecosystems. In 1997, with the passage of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, the System embraced an overarching mission of conservation and uniform procedures of management. One of its mandates is the preservation of biodiversity, and keeping the ecosystems intact.
The Refuge System, while originally founded to preserve waterfowl, has grown to encompass the protection of all species and their habitat, such as the porcupine caribou of Alaska. The entire spectrum of North American ecosystems - from the southwest desert to the arctic tundra, from tropical forests to coral reefs – can be found within the System.
Some 150 of the refuges contain various types of marine and estuarine areas that provide habitat for species, which include sea turtles, monk seals and countless shorebirds. The Refuge System encompasses almost three million acres of coral reefs and adjacent ocean habitat, an area larger than any other protected public lands or marine system.
The System includes 17 million acres of tundra, eight million acres of brush habitat, six million acres of desert and four million acres of grassland. In addition, 75 designated National Wilderness areas – 21 million acres, or one-fifth of the entire National Wilderness Preservation System, are found on 65 of the refuges in 25 states.
Since species extinction continues to plague our planet, the Refuge System can be viewed as a vital link in the preservation of unique and critical landscapes. Species such as the mountain lion, wolverines, blue grouse and prairie-fringed orchid depend on the System for their survival. The wetlands within the System, support the needs of heron, egrets, storks, and of course, the plover and turnstone.
While Laguna’s coastline is not part of the National Refuge System, we have designated our tide pools and local waters as a part of the Orange County Marine Life Refuge. This links us to a dedicated program for the preservation and protection of local marine life. Shorebirds must sense our commitment to preservation, which is why they can be found scurrying along the water’s edge.
While their transitory visit seems altogether too brief, the appearance of the traveling birds provides visual diversity and the chance to ponder concepts such as the preservation of migratory habitat and the conservation of wildlife in America. We have the opportunity, both collectively and through our individual actions, to insure that our planetary legacy is one of species abundance and habitat expansion. For information on how you can help, visit www.refugenet.org.
Catharine Cooper supports the expansion of wild places. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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