Underfunded Wildlife Refuges Become Breeding Ground for Drugs, Prostitution

America's wildlife refuges are so short of money that one-third have no staff, boardwalks and buildings are in disrepair, and drug dealers are using them to grow marijuana and make methamphetamine, a group pushing for more funding says.

"Without adequate funding, we are jeopardizing some of the world's most spectacular wildlife and wild lands," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and chairman of the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement.

The alliance said in a report released this week to Congress that the nation's 548 refuges and the 100 million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System — about the size of California — is underfunded by 43 percent. The refuge system needs at least $765 million a year but is receiving only $434 million, the report said.

A decrease in law enforcement has left the refuges vulnerable to criminal activity, including prostitution, torched cars and illegal immigrant camps along the Potomac River in suburban Washington; gay sex hookups in South Carolina and Alabama; methamphetamine labs in Nevada; and pot growing operations in Washington state.

"The refuge system has been underfunded for years but it has really mushroomed in the past several," Hirsche said.

The alliance is recommending Congress increase funding for fiscal 2009 to $514 million and that full funding be reached by 2013. The House and Senate are expected to take up the issue in coming weeks.

The report said the refuge system has cut 300 staff positions. Without more funding, a plan to reduce staffing by 20 percent will continue. The system needs 845 law enforcement officers but has 180.

"In some cases, we find that drug operations have set up shop in refuges," Hirsche said.