Statement for the Record
Philip A. Francis, Jr.
Chair of the Executive Council
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests & Mining
Committee on Energy & Natural Resources
United States Senate
Hearing on Various National Park and Public Lands Bills
November 18, 2020
Senator Lee, Senator Wyden, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to provide a statement for the record on behalf of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition) regarding four of the bills on today’s agenda that impact the National Park Service (NPS).
I am a long-time member of the Coalition, including having served as the chair of the Executive Council for the past two years. I retired from the National Park Service in 2013 after eight years as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a total of 41 years of government service with the NPS. My work with the Park Service included service as administrative officer at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Shenandoah National Park, and Yosemite National Park. I also served as associate regional director, administration, for the Southwest region, and as deputy superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains, including three years as acting superintendent.
The Coalition is comprised of more than 1,900 retired, former, and current employees of the NPS who collectively have nearly 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting national parks. We believe that our parks and public lands represent the very best of America, and advocate for their protection.
H.R. 823/S. 241, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act (CORE Act)
The Coalition supports the CORE Act that provides for the designation of the San Juan Wilderness Area, the protection of certain portions of the Thompson Divide from mineral exploration and development, and the designation of the Camp Hale area as a National Historic Landscape in honor of the training done there by the 10th Mountain Division during World War II.
In particular, we strongly support the portion of the CORE Act that would officially authorize in statute the establishment of the Curecanti National Recreation Area, thus making it a full-fledged member of the National Park System. Five former superintendents—Connie Rudd, Joe Alston, Sheridan Steele, Bill Wellman, and Bruce Noble—with a combined 26.5 years of experience as superintendents of Curecanti National Recreation Area and a collective 179 years of service with the NPS—also have gone on the record as supporting the Curecanti legislation included in the CORE Act.
Curecanti National Recreation Area was created in 1965 through an agreement between the NPS and the Bureau of Reclamation that was signed by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. A careful reading of that agreement suggests that all parties envisioned that Congress would pass legislation for the area quickly in order to codify this agreement in statute. Unfortunately, it has been 55 years and there has been no legislation officially authorizing Curecanti National Recreation Area as part of the National Park System. The recreation area is one of only a couple of park units that have never had their own authorizing legislation.
Designating Curecanti National Recreation Area as a unit of the National Park System will ensure the protection of its superb resources in perpetuity and provide for continued public access for a variety of recreational purposes. H.R. 823 and S. 241 also would result in an exchange of lands among the NPS, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management that will allow each agency to acquire certain parcels that would be most efficient for them to manage. Significantly, the Curecanti legislation would not place any additional lands into federal ownership. The legislation is revenue-neutral in that it does not call for a budget increase for the recreation area.
Curecanti National Recreation Area is mostly known as the home of Blue Mesa Reservoir. This reservoir is the largest body of water in Colorado and a magnet for water-based recreation, as well as an important source of water for irrigation and municipal use. The recreation area has numerous hiking trails and ten campgrounds that accommodate tents and RVs, and includes scenic wonders such as the Dillon Pinnacles. Curecanti includes more miles of the Black Canyon than does Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The recreation area attracts approximately one million visitors per year and generates in the vicinity of $40 million of annual revenue that forms a vital part of the economy in Gunnison, Montrose, and Delta counties. We urge the committee’s support in getting this long-overdue piece of legislation passed.
S. 1695, the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act
The Coalition has serious concerns about S. 1695, a bill that would authorize local officials of the federal land management agencies, including the NPS, to determine all permissible forms of nonmotorized travel over any route in a wilderness area. It would require that all forms of nonmotorized travel be accommodated to the maximum extent possible. Additionally, if the local official does not act on a request within two years, the route would be considered approved.
We understand S. 1695 is being proposed to allow mountain bike use within wilderness areas.
The legislation, as proposed, would override land management agency prohibitions on the use of bicycles in wilderness that, in most cases, have been in place for over 50 years. Importantly, the proposal would be in direct conflict with the stated purpose and intent of the Wilderness Act of 1964 (Public Law 88-577; 16 U.S.C. 1131-1136), as stated in Section 2(a) of the Act:
In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness (emphasis added to underlined sections above).
As described in the Act, wilderness was specifically intended to be a place protected, in part, from modern forms of mechanization. Regarding this, Section 4(c) of the Act states:
(c) Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area (emphasis added to underlined sections above).
The plain language of Section 4(c) clearly distinguishes between “motorized transport” and the broader category of “mechanized transport,” while prohibiting all such forms. Because of these distinctions, “other forms of mechanical transport” inevitably includes non-motorized forms such as bicycles.
The visionary Wilderness Act has served the nation well for over 50 years. Now, when the pressures of modernization on public lands are greater than ever, is not the time to revise, some would say weaken, its mandate with regard to “other forms of mechanical transport.” The Coalition believes bicycle use within wilderness areas is inconsistent with the language and the intent of the Act and we strongly oppose amending the act to authorize this use.
Further, we find it odd that the legislation exempts the Appalachian National Scenic Trail from the provisions of this legislation, but none of the other long-distance trails managed by the NPS and the other federal land management agencies. We see no difference among these various long-distance trails and believe all federal long-distance trails should be managed consistently. Additionally, if enacted, it would create a major workload for national park superintendents to determine potential impacts on each proposed route within a wilderness area to ensure that national park resources, wildlife, visitor enjoyment, and other impacts are avoided while processing permits for such activities.
We urge the committee to set this bill aside just as previous bills have been stopped to allow this inconsistent use of wilderness.
S. 4569, the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument Boundary Adjustment Act
The Coalition strongly supports S. 4569, that would authorize the transfer of administrative jurisdiction from the U.S. Forest Service to the NPS of about 98 acres of land adjacent to the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
The visitor center for the national monument and several other NPS buildings are located on the Forest Service land adjacent to the current boundary of the monument, and the NPS operates these lands under an interagency agreement. The agreement requires Forest Service approval whenever any maintenance needs to be completed, among other provisions. S. 4569 would eliminate these administrative issues by transferring the land for these buildings to the NPS. The bill would help ensure a better visitor experience for those coming to see the volcano and to enjoy the trails and other resources of the park.
S. 4625, the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2000
The Coalition believes S. 4625 would provide much-needed resources to federal agencies to meet their wildfire programs’ needs, but we also have concerns about some of its provisions. The bill would provide $300 million for federal land management agencies, including the NPS, to increase the number of acres treated with prescribed fire and would require the federal land management agencies to have at least one prescribed fire at each of its units based upon defined criteria in order to help address the wildfire risks seen across the country. The criteria proposed in the Act for this wildfire requirement appear somewhat arbitrary and may not address the actual risks occurring on each park unit’s land. National park fire plans are unique to each unit and created to set some parameters around which decisions are made and implemented for having prescribed fires. These plans should guide the decision-making process instead of a limited set of pre-defined criteria that may be inappropriate or unneeded at specific national park sites.
The issue of sufficient prescribed fires on federal lands tends to receive attention every year the country experiences extreme wildlife risk. And it is true that federal land management agencies often have insufficient funds to be able to carry out their prescribed fire responsibilities. Increases in staffing for wildland fire definitely are needed for preventive actions such as controlled burns and defensible space, and also for large-scale suppression activities. S. 4625 would help federal land management agencies achieve their prescribed fire needs by increasing resources for this purpose.
Further, the impacts of the devastating wildfires that annually affect major parts of our country need the cooperation of all parties at the federal, state, and local level, along with homeowners and businesses in communities most concerned with wildfires. Many national park units in fact are part of the wildland urban interface. We applaud the provisions of the bill that allow some of the funding to be provided for prescribed burns on state, county, and private land and that increase the training and development programs in federal agencies for prescribed fire staffing in order to address currently unmet needs.
None of this increased funding will achieve the desired effects without leadership and direction for those programs within the NPS and among other land management agencies. Fire plans, in parks across the nation, need to be reviewed to ensure visitor and employee safety, and modified to meet the demands of unprecedented fire activity caused by previous inaction and climate change. These plans need to be shared with members of the House and Senate and the appropriate committees in order to increase understanding of each federal agencies’ actions, and needs. These plans should also be the primary basis for prescribed fire activities within our national park sites in achieving the purposes of this legislation.
The Coalition would be glad to provide you with any additional information you may need on the views expressed on each of these bills.