USFWS pushes for restrictions on recreational activities
By SEAN ELLIS
NAMPA, Idaho -- Farmers in Canyon County have joined others in opposing a proposal to limit recreational opportunities in the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge's federal managers say the new restrictions are needed to ensure the 11,000-acre park meets its federally mandated requirement to provide a refuge and breeding grounds for migratory birds and other wildlife.
But members of the farming community point out the refuge is centered around Lake Lowell, a man-made reservoir created in 1909 to supply irrigation water.
Lake Lowell has the capacity to irrigate 200,000 acres of land.
"People call it a lake, but it's actually a reservoir that supplies irrigation water," Canyon County farmer Sid Freeman said. "It was built and designed for a specific purpose: Storing irrigation water."
The lake was built for farmers, he said, and farmers are siding with locals who want to maintain recreational opportunities.
The lake's irrigation mission trumps all issues, said ag lobbyist Roger Batt, who helped Canyon County Farm Bureau draft a letter urging refuge officials to drop their plan and instead focus on fighting the lake's growing noxious weed problem.
Infestations of seven species of noxious weeds have been identified in the refuge.
"The reason we have a wildlife refuge there is because a water storage system was set up to deliver irrigation water," Batt said. "To us, the primary purpose of that place is for irrigation."
Three days after irrigation water first started flowing from the reservoir in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the refuge.
In addition to providing refuge for 150,000 ducks, 15,000 geese, bald eagles, osprey, owls and scores of other birds, the refuge also provides food and habitat for a variety of animals such as mule deer and coyotes.
Kendra Niemec, the refuge's assistant manager, said the 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act requires all refuges to develop a comprehensive conservation plan.
The Deer Flat plan, which will be completed in fall 2012 and direct management of the refuge for the next 15 years, has to meet the park's mission of providing a refuge for wildlife, she said.
"Any activities that occur on the refuge need to be geared toward that purpose," she said. Managers will make every effort to maintain all recreational opportunities "as long as those are compatible with and don't materially detract from wildlife."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the nation's wildlife refuges, is proposing a plan that would limit on-water activities such as boating and jet skiing to a third of the western part of the lake, from noon to sunset. The middle part would be a no-wake zone with a 5 mph speed limit, and the eastern third would be closed all year because it's the most biologically diverse part of the refuge.
The draft plan also proposes a fee system that would charge people for entering the refuge and launching boats. The proposal could also reduce the number of fishing opportunities and include restrictions on horses, dogs and bicycles.
Niemec said nothing in the plan would impact the irrigation water the lake supplies.
The plan is opposed by the state's congressional delegation and Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. He said local government agencies, including the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Canyon County commissioners, have a long track record of successfully managing the lake and protecting the wildlife that use it.
"These new proposals totally ignore this and are completely unacceptable to me," he said in a statement. "I will be consulting with my delegation colleagues on whatever steps we can take to ensure these draft proposals go nowhere except into the dust heap of history."
The public comment period on the proposal began May 27 and lasts through July 29. Niemec encouraged people to weigh in and said federal managers are open to ideas.