Congresswoman Candice Miller prides herself on being an economic engine when it comes to helping businesses flourish.
And that's a problem for the National Park Service, because the Michigan Republican believes the agency is standing in the way of $144 million in yearly economic impact that could be generated by personal watercraft rooster-tailing their way through a small handful of parks.
Representative Miller's beef with the NPS is that the agency hasn't issued PWC rules for Gateway National Recreation Area in New York and New Jersey, Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida and Mississippi, Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina, Curecanti National Recreation Area in Colorado, and Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas.
To figure out why the NPS hasn't been quicker in churning out PWC regulations, Congresswoman Miller plans to hold a hearing before her Government Reform Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs. The hearing was to have been February 8, but due to the death and upcoming funeral of Coretta Scott King, it's been postponed indefinitely.
Some background: Back in March 2000, the NPS issued a final rule prohibiting the use of PWC in national parks. However, the agency cited 21 parks where PWC had been allowed and gave them two years to finalize rules to continue the use, if they thought it was appropriate. Six of those parks decided to ban the watercraft, and five of the other 15 parks still haven't finalized PWC rules. (I'm told two of the parks -- Cape Lookout National Seashore and Gulf Islands National Seashore -- wanted to ban PWC, but Interior Secretary Gale Norton convinced them otherwise.)
"These delays have resulted in PWC prohibitions for the five remaining parks for nearly four years, and the Subcommittee is concerned that the Park Service has not made the timely completion of these rules a priority," Rep. Miller noted Friday in a memorandum she sent to those on her subcommittee.
The Republican doesn't mince words when it comes to her position on PWCs in the parks. She has titled the hearing, "Taking on Water: The National Park Service's Stalled Rulemaking Effort on Personal Watercraft."
According to Miller, as a result of the alleged foot-dragging by the Park Service between 2001 and 2004, when some of the parks completed their rule-making, "the estimated total costs to the U.S. economy of the bans and negative publicity were more than $567 million a year." Beyond that, the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, which provided these numbers to the congresswoman, estimates that the PWC bans have cost about 3,300 direct and in-direct jobs during that time-frame.
Whether PWCs cause environmental problems is not much of a concern to Congresswoman Miller, who notes in her memo that "the Subcommittee's principal concern is not whether PWC use has a detrimental impact on the environment."
She goes on to add that in the 15 environmental assessments that have been completed so far, "NPS found that PWCs in each park evaluated would not have a detrimental impact on the environment to the extent that a ban was appropriate."
Now, I haven't reviewed the EAs yet, but the congresswoman's language indicates that there have been some environmental impacts, and that seems to conflict with the Park Service's prime mandate to protect the resource.
To get to the root of the rule-making problem, Congresswoman Miller has invited an interesting array of witnesses to testify before her subcommittee, one that seems stacked for the PWC industry with few advocates for the parks.
On the witness list are Fernando Garcia, director of public and regulatory affairs for Bombardier Recreational Products; Laura Baughman, president of The Trade Partnership, an economic consulting firm that spends most of its time on issues that affect "corporate, industry or national competitiveness," (a curious witness for the subject at hand); and John Hamer, who owns Motorsports of Miami.
Representing the NPS will be Karen Taylor-Goodrich, the agency's associate director for visitor and resource protection, while Carl Schneebeck, the public lands campaign director for the Bluewater Network, a parks advocacy group, will testify in support of the parks.
Schneebeck likely will bring some interesting numbers of his own to the hearing, whenever it's rescheduled. For instance, prior to the ban handed down in 2000, the PWC visitation numbers at each of the parks in question represented less than 1 percent of each of the parks' overall visitation numbers.
Additionally, at Cape Lookout visitation actually went up 16 percent after the ban was instituted, and at Curecanti NRA the increase was about 27 percent.
Now, Schneeback doesn't attribute the visitation increase to the PWC ban, but he points out that, "People seem to be coming in just fine without personal watercraft use being available to them."
Some more numbers: According to the American Canoe Association, PWC are allowed on 98 percent of the United States' inland waters, as well as 99 percent of its ocean waters. National Park Service-managed waters, meanwhile, constitute less than 2 percent of federally managed waters.
Beyond those numbers, there are the surveys that overwhelmingly show national park visitors enjoy the parks with their present list of activities and want peace and quiet and could care less about motorized recreation.
Back in December the Harris Poll demonstrated that 85 percent of Americans consider the National Park Service as their favorite government agency. More recently, the Outdoor Industry Association polled Americans on their thoughts about national parks, and nearly two-thirds said the Park Service should focus its recreational efforts on human-powered activities like hiking, biking, paddling and camping instead of on motorized activities, such as personal water craft.
While this issue might not be as long-lived as snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, it's not going to go away overnight. And be assured that there will be much more for me to post on.