Charlie Vandemoer, manager of the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes all five federal refuges in the state, said USFWS properties are managed first and foremost for fish and wildlife conservation, as public recreation is secondary. ATVs and bicycles are prohibited. He said hunting, especially of deer so they don’t devour native plantings, is part of the management strategy.

State and federal officials have said early successional habitat is needed to help stem the decline of shrubland-dependent wildlife such as New England cottontail and the American woodcock.

According to the USFWS, shrubland and young forest habitats in the Northeast have declined dramatically over the past century, primarily as a result of the decline of agricultural land use, development pressures and wetland filling.

The federal agency has identified early successional habitat as a high priority for conservation. One such plan is the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge. The 10 refuges in six states — Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and New York — would acquire up to 15,000 private acres through various methods, including conservation easements and donations.

While the acquisition plan has been approved, no lands have yet been obtained, according to Vandemoer. Hunting and fishing would be allowed in the proposed Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge.

Vandemoer noted the fees collected on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, tags, stamps and permits and the taxes generated by the sale of related merchandise are the primary source of funding for most state wildlife conservation efforts, including those in Rhode Island.

Last year Rhode Island’s five USFWS refuges saw a record 643,000 visitors — a figure Vandemoer attributes to the pandemic, as the properties are seeing a similar pace of visitors this year. Of those visitors in 2020, he said, only 316 were there to hunt.

“It’s a challenge to provide as much recreation as we can while meeting our goals, which is fish and wildlife conservation,” Vandemoer said.

Hunting, however, isn’t the only point of contention among those who visit wildlife refuges, preserves and other public spaces protected from development.

The underlying problem leading to most user strife is the density of the state’s population — second behind only New Jersey — and a lack of open space available to meet the wants of all users. Never mind nature’s needs.

The smorgasbord of uses allowed on protected lands can be different from property to property. Change is inevitable, angst unavoidable, disagreement common and bad behavior a problem.

Rhode Island’s collection of protected space open to the public — a patchwork of land owned by taxpayers and nonprofits — is used by hunters with guns and bows, anglers, photographers, birders, walkers, hikers, joggers, mountain bikers, mushroom hunters, picnickers, horseback riders, swimmers, dog walkers, rock climbers and off-road riders.

Dogs let off leash disturb ground-nesting birds, and quiet meditation is interrupted by the roar of ATVs. Thoughtless visitors leave litter and pet waste behind, and the illegal dumping of trash, appliances, furniture and construction debris leaves scars.

Use conflict, however, is just one side of the management issue. Rhode Island’s protected spaces are more than just human playgrounds. They are home to flora and fauna, and provide priceless ecosystem services such as stormwater management, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, and water and air purification.

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