The National Park Service is pursuing a political agenda to eliminate recreational opportunities to appease their environmental allies without regard to local needs or its economic impact, Republican lawmakers said during a Friday hearing.
From new prohibitions on fishing, walking, driving, kite-flying and pets in many areas of the Outer Banks beaches of North Carolina to proposed rules in Florida to ban fishing and boating in key parts of the Biscayne Bay, the Interior Department’s park agency drew the ire of the House Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands that conducted the oversight hearing.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), panel chairman, said it’s “unfortunate that federal authorities have acquiesced to lawsuits by environmental activists,” but that pending legislation would restore public access to the public lands.
“Someone has to bring reality back to the Interior Department,” Bishop said. “Good grief! This is a recreation area and the only thing you seem to prohibit is recreation.”
“The Park Service has an attitude that makes it uninviting for people to go there.
It’s totally inconsistent with reality, it defies common sense and it’s simply inappropriate,” Bishop said.
“This looks wrong, it smells wrong, it’s bad. When you go back to your colleagues, tell them once again they’ve screwed up. Fix it!” Bishop told the park service official testifying before the panel.
Rep. Walter Jones (R –N.C.) said he has authored legislation that would reopen 26 miles of beach that are now permanently closed to motorized access, and give seashore managers flexibility to implement more balanced measures that maximize both recreational access and protect certain bird species.
“Mr. Chairman, the bottom line here is that the federal government is unnecessarily blocking the public from a national seashore created for their recreation, and in so doing, it is destroying jobs,” Jones said. “This bill is about jobs, it’s about taxpayers’ right to access the recreational areas they own, and it’s about restoring balance and common sense to park service management.”
Herbert Frost, associate director of Natural Resource Stewardship and Science at the park service, told the committee his agency “strongly opposes” Jones’ bill to overturn the agency’s decisions in North Carolina.
In devising the new rules, Frost said they balanced “appropriate public use” to the “greatest extent possible” while protecting the environment.
As to the effects of the rules already imposed on the Outer Banks, Frost said visitation numbers at the seashore are “stable.”
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), defended the park service’s actions and said “certain people don’t agree with the balance the park service” strives for to maintain dueling mandates to protect access and as well as the environment.
“Summer vacations are being planned as we speak and (visitors) will think there is no place to visit this summer. The last thing we want is conflict – we get enough of that with the kids in the back seat,” Grijalva said.
Both the Biscayne Bay proposal to protect the coral reef as well as the new rules on the Outer Banks is based on “sound science” in a “nonpartisan” manner, Grijalva said.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R –Fla.) said the proposed marine reserve zone in her home state would cover 10,000 acres “would close all fishing” and is “overly restrictive.”
“The loss of fishing opportunities, and their associated economic impacts, would be significant,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
“These park users consider the closure of the most popular and productive fishing waters draconian and based on flimsy, outdated and or simply feel-good speculation of perceived benefits,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
“We all share the same goal of ensuring healthy, vibrant, and sustainable park and fishery,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “With careful management our beloved Biscayne National Park will remain a jewel of our community and available for generations of visitors to respect and enjoy.”
Frost said that studies they have reviewed show the reef’s coral and fish resources have diminished, and that the biological integrity of the coral reef is suffering.
The Park Service’s proposal for the marine zone would give the coral reef “a reprieve to recover its health” while allowing snorkelers the opportunities to see an unfished coral reef system, Frost said.
“Coral reefs contain some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, forming important habitat for thousands of corals, algae, fish, and other marine organisms,” Frost said. “They also serve as natural areas for recreation, boost the marine tourism economy, support recreational and commercial fisheries, protect coastlines from storm damage, and function as rich warehouses for genetic and species diversity.”
The Park Service has received 18,000 comments from the public on their plans, which they are still analyzing. However, Frost said their “initial analysis” indicated that 90 percent of those comments support the creation of a marine reserve zone.
Bishop warned that before making the same mistake in Florida as they did in North Carolina, they should listen to local concerns or they will find themselves “marching along a path that will lead to another conflict.”
Rep. John Duncan (R –Tenn.) said that in both cases, the park services “wants to turn these areas into their own personal playground and restrict access to ordinary people. It’s a very elitist type of attitude and it’s just disgusting to me.”