The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, as amended in 1997, (16 U.S.C. 668dd) serves as the "organic act" for the National Wildlife Refuge System. This Act consolidated the various categories of lands administered by the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into a single National Wildlife Refuge System.
The Act establishes a unifying mission for the Refuge System, a process for determining compatible uses of refuges, and a requirement for preparing comprehensive conservation plans. This Act states that the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System be focused singularly on wildlife conservation. The legislation establishes a conservation mission for the National Wildlife Refuge System:
"To administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans."
The Act identifies six priority wildlife-dependent recreation uses, clarified the Secretary's authority to accept donations of money for land acquisition and placed restrictions on the transfer, exchange or other disposal of lands within the Refuge System.
The legislation clearly states that no refuge use may be allowed unless it is first determined to be compatible. A compatible use is defined as a use that, in the sound professional judgment of the Director (read refuge manager), will not materially interfere with or detract from the fulfillment of the mission of the system or the purposes of the refuge. Sound professional judgment is further defined as a decision that is consistent with principles of fish and wildlife management and administration, available science and resources, and adherence with law.
It also specifies that an opportunity for public review and comment must be made available for each compatibility determination unless an opportunity for public review has already been provided during the development or revision of a comprehensive conservation plan.
As of January 1999, 56 refuges have been acquired nationally principally under authority of the Endangered Species Act for the benefit of threatened and endangered species. Examples include Crystal River (manatees), Oklahoma Bat Caves (endangered bats), Hakalau Forest (endangered Hawaiian birds), Julia Butler Hansen (Columbian white-tailed deer), Buenos Aires (masked bobwhite quail), Ash Meadows (12 species of plants and fish). Over 600 national wildlife refuges, wetland management districts and wildlife coordination areas contribute to the well being of endangered and threatened species.
(Always refer to the most current version of the law, either by checking the compiled laws, or referring to the U.S.Code Service site above.)