Our country's National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) System is one of the world's premier wildlife networks and provides Americans in every state with a chance to experience the wildlife and habitat of their region and to visit and learn about other regions. Currently, our NWR System consists of 548 refuges, encompassing 97 million acres that showcase some of the most stunning and biologically diverse lands and waters in the country. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2006, nearly 35 million people visited a national wildlife refuge. As we mark National Wildlife Week, it is only fitting that we continue to push for full federal support of our nation's wildlife refuges, which are home to countless species of plant and wildlife.
Few things in Washington garner the strong level of bipartisan support as the nation's wildlife refuges do. These treasured and protected areas offer enjoyment to both local residents and visitors while providing habitats to native wildlife. As residents of South Jersey know, our region is home to three wildlife refuges: the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, Cape May NWR, and Supawna Meadows NWR. Each year, they provide recreational and educational enjoyment to hundreds of thousands of visitors, while preserving the habitats of countless wildlife species. In fact, last year the New Jersey Audubon Society recognized South Jersey's three NWRs as "Important Bird Areas," providing essential habitat for species of migrating, breeding or wintering birds in the state.
Unfortunately, funding shortfalls threaten our nation's refuges. Currently, many refuges are losing all staff, maintenance projects are overdue and visitor centers are closing. With the country facing economic challenges, a partnership between the federal government and private supporters is critical to prevent further deterioration. As we continue to witness in South Jersey, local environmental groups and concerned individuals are stepping up to the plate to help maintain and promote our three refuges.
I joined the "Friends of Supawna Meadows" and other volunteers for a day of clean-up at the refuge in Salem County as they removed countless trash and debris from the grounds. The day-long event underscored the significant impact of the funding shortfalls; Supawna Meadows has been placed on a non-staffed preservation status, resulting in a drastic reduction of biological programs, maintenance projects being left incomplete, and the refuge office being closed. When nearly 500,000 people visit our local refuges each year for hiking, birding, hunting, fishing and educational experiences - and with every tax dollar spent on a refuge yielding $14 back in recreational expenditures to the local economy - it is clear that we must do everything possible to protect South Jersey's environmental treasures.
It is for these reasons that I joined with fellow New Jersey Congressman Jim Saxton, Delaware Congressman Mike Castle and others in sending a letter to President Bush requesting full funding for the NWR System earlier this year. As a member of the Congressional Wildlife Refuge Caucus, I have been proud to secure more than $13 million for South Jersey's refuges, but I believe an increased federal investment must be made. I will continue to fight to preserve and protect these critical areas for future generations. If allowed to be lost, environmental treasures like South Jersey's three wildlife refuges and vast open spaces are rarely recovered.
Congressman LoBiondo coauthored the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coast Health Act to provide states with federal funds to monitor water quality at their beaches and notify the public of any beach closures. Since enactment of the BEACH Act nealry $1.5 million has been available to New Jersey to monitor the water quality of our beaches and protect public health.
Congressman LoBiondo spoke on the House floor on July 22, 2008 in support of S. 2766, which codifies an exemption for over 15 million recreational boat owners from being fined $32,000 daily for incidental discharges such as bilge water, rain water runoff and deck wash. A second bill (S. 3298), supported by LoBiondo, will provide fishing vessels and other small commercial boats a two year exemption from costly permits and potential lawsuits. During these two years, the EPA will study the issue of incidental discharges and their effect on the environment before being forced to implement regulations by a court.
In his statement on the House floor, LoBiondo argued that it would be unfair to provide exemptions for 15 million recreational vessels while refusing to extend the same exemption for approximately 30,000 commercial vessels that are of equal, or in many cases, smaller size. He further pointed out that rain water runoff, bilge water, engine cooling water and other discharges are materially the same regardless of whether they are discharged from a recreational vessel, a fishing vessel or a small tour boat. LoBiondo will use the two year period authorized under S. 3298 to secure a permanent exemption for commercial vessels.