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Waste Watch: Tracking Federal funding at Montezuma Wildlife Refuge

Updated: Wednesday, July 10 2013, 03:09 PM EDT

Rochester, N.Y. - If you use the thruway between Rochester and Syracuse, you might have noticed the work being done on the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. Crews are in the process of moving hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of earth. Several viewers asked 13WHAM to check into what the project is all about, how much it's costing taxpayers, and when it will be done.

The first thing we noticed upon arrival is that Refuge Manager Tom Jasikoff is not your typical bureaucrat, whatever your idea of a typical bureaucrat is. Jasikoff has an office, but spends most of his time outside it. If he owns suits and ties, he doesn't wear them to work. He has constantly muddy boots and an SUV that looks like it carries a permanent cake of dirt.

"I don't have a large staff," he says with a shrug. "If there's work to do, why can't the manager do it? We have to be efficient around here."

Jasikoff has nine permanent employees to take care of 10,000 acres. It was his idea to launch the marsh project that can currently be seen from the thruway. Jasikoff says the wetlands are eroding -- drying up, really, thanks to an unfortunate development sixty years ago.

When the thruway was built, it was constructed directly through the heart of the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. The result is a faster process of drying and loss of water. 

What used to be half water and half cattails is now becoming dominated by the cattails.

"That's a problem for the birds," Jasikoff explains. "They need the cattail for various reasons, but they also need water so they can eat. We need a balance, and it's going the wrong way."

Jasikoff estimates that more than 300 species of migratory birds stop at the Refuge every year, totaling more than a million birds. The birds stop for several weeks in the spring on their way north to Canada, and for several months in the fall on their way south, some to the southern hemisphere.

"If you drive your family to Florida, you don't drive straight through," Jasikoff says. "You stop, see the sights, rest, eat, spend time. These birds are drawn to this site. It's a very special piece of land. How many pieces of land do you know like this one? There aren't any."

In order to bring back the balance he seeks, Jasikoff is overseeing the work that calls for daily digging in heavy muck soil. Crews are clearing holes into the dense stands of cattail, offering waterfowl new options.

"We're not just carving circular ponds," Jasikoff says as we drive out to one of the work sites. "We've analyzed it. We're cutting nooks and corners that will promote real diversity."

Phase one came with a price tag of $550,000 and will be complete this year. The money came from a grant that Montezuma that to compete for, a pot of roughly $14 million allocated by Congress for wildlife projects.

"We wanted to be extremely efficient with that money," Jasikoff says, pointing to several pieces of heavy equipment. "We're not renting. We knew this would take several years, so we purchased equipment. Now the next phase will cost us less. We try to save as much as we can at every step."

He estimates phase two will be "a couple hundred thousand dollars, at least," and would start later this year if another grant comes through. There is no phase three; the entire project would be complete in three more years.

Taxpayers might wonder: Why now? Can't the birds wait? After all, the federal budget is saddled by deficit and debt.

Jasikoff says he understands why some taxpayers might want to shelve all federal projects for the time being. "I'm a taxpayer," he says. "I believe as a representative of the government -- of the US Fish and Wildlife Service -- we need to responsible with what we do with these funds. But this is a vital mission. Congress entrusted us with this responsibility. The American people made it a value to uphold 75 years ago."

And he adds that waiting could have serious consequences. We asked whether the birds would just go somewhere else if the Montezuma Refuge continued to deteroriate. "They might not exist at all," Jasikoff says. "They could die. Birds need habitat. It's like people need houses."

Regarding the refuge itself, Jasikoff explains that waiting to repair the damage would result in heavier bills later, when the problem is worse. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you that this one project is the be-all, end-all," he says. "But it's part of a larger effort to fix serious problems. We know it's not cheap, but it's worthwhile."

Before we leave, Jasikoff drives us to several parts of the Refuge that are being expanded. It's a separate project, and we asked how much that one is costing taxpayers. "It's not," he says, smiling. He explains that when possible, the Refuge applies for money collected from "duck stamps," the $15 fee hunters pay to hunt ducks. "We'd rather draw from that fundthan go back to taxpayers," Jasikoff says.

On the ride back, he points to a bald eagle circling a section of the Refuge just north of the thruway. He beams with pride in saying that the Refuge is "the single reason that the bald eagle is not gone from western New York entirely. We brought it back." He references the 150,000 visitors and tourists that come to the Refuge annually, taking advantage of free educationprograms. He talks about the short-eared owl, making a resurgence around here, which he says is a sign the marsh project is already working.

It won't please everyone, but Jasikoff welcomes scrutiny. "Open door," he says. "We're always happy to explain what we do. We expect to be held accountable." There will always be some taxpayers who don't feel it's worth spending any money on bird migration and environmental preservation. Ultimately, the earth-moving projects are funded by Congress. Jasikoff is carrying out the mission established by lawmakers. One 13WHAM viewer wrote, "I am all for nature, outdoors, etc., but as the government looks to cut spending, would this money not be better spent somewhere else?" If Congress decides it's a wasteful endeavor, they can halt funding, but there are no signs of that happening any time soon.

Waste Watch: Tracking Federal funding at Montezuma Wildlife Refuge

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