Get Prepared for Discussion of the Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge CCP

Wildlife refuges are for both wildlife and for people, and finding the right balance is a challenge.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) stated clearly in the Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for Featherstone and Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuges that “[p]ublic access is the overarching issue at Featherstone Refuge.”

The Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) has been closed to public use ever since the first land was acquired in 1979.  After over 30 years, that might finally change.  Public meetings to discuss the Comprehensive Conservation Plan for Featherstone and Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuges will be held on February 2 and 3.

Here’s what you ought to know, if you intend to attend a meeting or submit comments to the FWS (send to northeastplanning@fws.gov by February 21):
– The FWS has improved its definition of the goals for managing Featherstone NWR.  The March, 2007 newsletter stated Goal 2 was to “Provide limited quality, compatible wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities” (emphasis added).  The CCP has redefined that goal now to be “Provide compatible, wildlife-dependent recreational opportunities to increase the enjoyment and appreciation of the refuge’s resources to visitors and nearby residents.

– The US Fish and Wildlife Service has an Appropriate Uses Policy for public activities on wildlife refuges.  It states “As defined by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 (Improvement Act), the six wildlife-dependent recreational uses (hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation) are determined to be appropriate. However, the refuge manager must still determine if these uses are compatible.

The recently-issued Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for Featherstone includes a Compatibility Determination based on biological impacts for seven activities: dog walking, outdoor events, research, non-motorized access on designated trails, wildlife observation/photography/environmental education/interpretation, hunting, and fishing.  All are defined as compatible, with stipulations (such as staying on trails).  The Compatibility Determination resolves the key debate: opening the refuge to public access will not harm the wildlife resources.

– the criteria for opening the refuge to public access are stated on page 3-96: “we do not currently allow public access to the refuge because we are unable to provide parking and safe, legal access to the refuge.”  The logical assumption is that once those two problems are resolved, the FWS would allow public access.

However, the agency was quick to add a disclaimer: “once parking and legal access is secured, we would also need to construct trails in locations that minimize impacts to natural resources.”  One question to explore with FWS representatives at the public meetings in February is how extensive a trail system would be required, before allowing the public to enjoy wildlife-dependent recreation at Featherstone.

Map 3.3 on page 3-91 identifies approximately .75 miles of trails that would be surfaced with dirt or stone dust.

Best case scenario: FWS managers designate those trails for public use and open the refuge immediately after CCP is finalized, then recruit volunteers from trail users to help with future maintenance.
Worst case scenario: FWS would not open Featherstone until the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail was completed.  That trail, if ever completed through Prince William, would parallel the railroad tracks at the refuge.  Trails that require little or no maintenance already provide access through the refuge to the Potomac River – must those existing trails be “improved” before public use is finally allowed at Featherstone?

– Map 3-91 identifies four potential locations for an Observation Deck and Fishing Area.  The Compatibility Determination for fishing appear to indicate on page B-79 that $200,000 must be spent for “Trail and Platform development and construction” before allowing anglers to fish on the refuge.  Apparently some sort of infrastructure is required before the FWS could manage fishing use, but exactly what the agency plans to build for $200,000 before letting people fish is vague.

– Breakwaters were constructed off the shoreline of Mason Neck, and it appears the FWS wants to harden the shoreline at Featherstone.  The CCP asks “Are there other shoreline stabilization measures we should explore, such as ‘living shoreline’ options?” but fails to answer that question.  There is no equivalent at Featherstone to the eroding headlands at Mason Neck, so keeping the option open for shoreline stabilization on the Potomac River is surprising.  Are refuge managers considering bulkheads, rock walls on the edge of the river, or other techniques for hardening the shoreline as part of their fishing/wildlife observation platform infrastructure?

– In the Compatibility Determination for Wildlife Observation, Photography, Environmental Education, and Interpretation, FWS states on page 3-64 “resources necessary to provide and administer these uses, at current use levels, are available within current and anticipated Refuge budgets” but “[a]dditional staff needs and costs are anticipated with the addition of trails and activities within the Complex.

Current costs to manage Wildlife Observation, Photography, Environmental Education, and Interpretation are slightly over $67,000/year.  Managing increased use is projected to require an additional $95,000/year.  (Overall, the CCP proposes the refuge complex staff grow by over 250%, from 6 to 16 people.)  The CCP offers no projections of increased visitor use, so it is hard to understand why additional staff needs and costs are dramatically higher.

The incremental costs of opening Featherstone might be minimal, and most of the additional requirements might be intended for the new development at Mason Neck… but the CCP fails to clarify if there are minimum funding requirements before resolving the overarching issue at Featherstone.  After keeping Featherstone closed to public use for over 30 years, the concern is that the FWS might be creating an unrealistic wish-list of staff and infrastructure funding requirements before finally letting people go behind the blue goose boundary sign.

– Species inventory data at Featherstone NWR is incomplete and inaccurate.  A detailed list of plant and animal species at Occoquan Bay NWR, produced initially by volunteers and updated on a regular basis, has been a valued asset there.  It is unclear if FWS will encourage volunteers to provide an equivalent inventory at Featherstone, or if Special Use Permits will be restricted and local partnership opportunities will be abandoned.

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