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 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

 June 16, 2021

Senator Cortez Masto, Senator Lee, 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 six 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 three 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.

S. 173, 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 Title IV of S. 173, 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 Title IV of 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 56 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. S. 173 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, Title IV of S. 173 would not place any additional lands into federal ownership. The title is revenue-neutral in that it does not call for a budget increase for the recreation area. These factors have made Title IV non-controversial for the overwhelming majority of stakeholders, as well as an important objective for the local citizenry.

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. 1686, the Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act

The Coalition has serious concerns about S. 1686, 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. 1686 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. 

While the bills mentioned above are the two of most concern to the Coalition, we offer the following brief comments on other bills on the hearing agenda:

S. 182, would withdraw certain federal land in the Pecos Watershed area in New Mexico from mineral entry. This legislation would provide additional protection to the water of the Pecos River, a portion of which runs through the Pecos National Historical Park, and which is used for fishing opportunities at certain times each year for the benefit and enjoyment of the public. The Coalition supports withdrawing the upper watershed area from mining, appropriation, and geothermal leasing, which would help ensure that the water quality of the river downstream remains protected into the future and remains available to the public for fishing and other recreational opportunities within the park.

S. 455, along with designating certain wilderness areas in Olympic National Forest in the State of Washington, would also designate segments of several rivers within Olympic National Park as components of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The Coalition is supportive of the designation of these wild and scenic rivers, which would provide an additional level of protection, as well as recognition of the significant resources found in these rivers within this important national park in the Pacific Northwest.

S. 567, would provide for additional conservation opportunities in the State of Nevada, that also would benefit two national park units. Sec. 208 of Title II would authorize the Tule Springs Fossil Bed National Monument to use funds from the Special Account created through the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act to make capital improvements at the national monument as well as for implementation of sustainability and climate initiatives in Clark County. Further, Title III would designate as wilderness nearly 92,000 acres of land in six areas within Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The Coalition is highly supportive of this wilderness designation along with the additional resources that would be made available to the Tule Springs National Monument by S. 567.

S. 904, would require the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works to digitize and make publicly available geographic information system mapping data that would identify for the public areas available for fishing, hunting, and other forms of outdoor recreation. While the Coalition believes making more information available to the public is a laudable goal, the timelines for doing this work as required by the legislation appear unrealistic and unachievable due to the lack of or condition of existing records, the lack of staffing to complete this work, and the lack of funding to produce the detailed information required by the bill. The Coalition urges the committee to consult more closely with the agencies that would be affected by the bill to find more realistic timelines as well as achievable results before moving ahead with the bill.

The Coalition would be glad to provide you with any additional information you may need on the views expressed on each of these bills.