Based on regular weekly dispatches from SI bureaus and special correspondents in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and overseas; and on reports from fish and game commissions of the 48 states and Alaska
REFUGE WRANGLE (Cont.)
When Conservationist Ira N. Gabrielson and Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay tangled over the question of oil and gas leases on National Wildlife Refuges (SI, March 19), a vital problem received much-needed airing. Now, after hearings, the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee composed of 17 Democrats and 12 Republicans has issued a unanimous report which strongly backs Dr. Gabrielson's contention that Interior's recent moves to grant oil and gas leases within wildlife refuges were "a long backward step in the cause of conservation."
The committee notes that although under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 the Secretary of the Interior has always had the right to issue such leases, only 11 were allowed up to August 31, 1953. On that date Secretary McKay suspended further leasing until new regulations for the protection of wildlife could be written. Yet between the "stop order" and December 2, 1955 when the new regulations went into effect, 60 new leases were actually granted. As the committee put it: "Such increased activity in the issuance of leases...can only result in serious damage to the wildlife refuge system in this country.... The new regulations fall far short of providing the degree of protection to the refuges which the activities of recent years prove to be necessary.
"Superficially," the committee report continues, "these regulations appear to give a veto power to the Fish and Wildlife Service. However, under applicable laws, oil and gas leasing in wildlife lands is a matter solely within the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior. Consequently, the veto power exists only so long as, and to the extent that, the Secretary permits the regulations to control. The hearings clearly demonstrated the necessity for some legislative check on the authority to make disposals which might lessen the value of wildlife refuges for conservation purposes."
Uncertain how the "requisite control should be exercised," the committee meanwhile announced an "experimental" arrangement between it and Secretary McKay whereby he would notify the committee at least 60 days in advance of any intention to allow gas or oil interests within a refuge. The committee could then register its approval or disapproval of the contemplated action.
"If this arrangement does not work out satisfactorily," the report states bluntly, "the committee intends to reconsider the problem, as well as alternative solutions thereto, including the enactment of appropriate legislation."
The report further called attention to "extreme administrative confusion" within the Fish and Wildlife Service, "incredible" lack of liaison between Fish and Wildlife administrators and field workers and what it considered "the necessity for changes either in personnel or organization."
Conservationists can find much to cheer in the committee's bipartisan report, but their battle is far from won.
North Central Airlines, which serves many northwestern states, has had a high rate of wildlife problems, including an unexpectedly odoriferous one. Recently a skunk sauntered into Central's office at Hibbing, Minnesota and settled down for what threatened to be a lengthy visit. Manager Charles M. Cox promptly and logically evacuated his headquarters and paced up and down in mounting frustration. Passengers were arriving, an overhead flight was insistently demanding a report on field conditions, and the skunk was in undisputed command. About the time airline operations lapsed into a state of total confusion, Hibbing's station WMFG started its morning broadcast. The Star-Spangled Banner blared from the office radio, the skunk rocketed out the door, and the airline's day, if not the nation's dignity, was saved.