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When Is Conservation of Park Lands Prudent, and When is the Spending Wasteful?
While some House Republicans are denigrating a proposal to spend $50 million to create a national historic site in the Virgin Islands, one that would preserve a centuries-old plantation and critical natural resources, a GOP senator is asking for $75 million to be spent on land acquisition for the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The timing of these divergent positions from within the Republican Party is particularly interesting in that they were voiced just days before President Obama is to release a budget proposal expected to call for a freeze on national park funding for the next three years.
Republicans on the House Natural Resources parks subcommittee issued a statement Tuesday criticizing their Democratic House colleagues for supporting a proposal to create a Castle Nugent National Historic Site roughly three miles south of St. Croix's principal town of Christianstedon in the Virgin Islands, saying now certainly is not the time to spend $50 million on that endeavor. The $50 million is tied to land acquisition for 2,900-above-water-acres for the proposed 11,500-acre site, and then the annual budget would be roughly $1 million, according to Congressional Budget Office calculations (see attachment.)
On Wednesday, during a floor debate in which the House approved the legislation, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-WA, argued that not only is the timing wrong for the bill because the National Park Service has yet to present a report on the appropriateness of the proposed site in the National Park System, but that the country isn't adequately caring for the 392 sites already in the system. On top of that, the country can't afford the site during the current economic malaise, said the Republican.
"With ten percent unemployment, millions of Americans without jobs, record budget deficits and public debt skyrocketing, now is not the time to spend up to $50 million of the taxpayers’ money to buy nearly 3000 acres of beachfront property on a Caribbean island. And on top of that, it’ll cost nearly $1 million a year to maintain," he said. "We can’t afford the price tag for a new park on St. Croix, just as many Americans will never be able to afford to visit there.
"I had my staff actually look up the cost of getting to St. Croix over the President’s Day weekend next month. From my hometown of Pasco, Washington, it would take two plane changes, over 12 hours and around $1000 to visit the island that will be home to this new park," Rep. Hastings told the chamber. "For a resident of the wild and wonderful State of West Virginia flying out of the Charleston airport, the time to get there is a little less, but the price is still around a thousand dollars.
"On top of the cost of buying this beachfront Caribbean property and the yearly cost of maintaining it, we need to be honest about the backlog we have in caring for the land already owned by the federal government," Rep. Hastings said. "There is $9 billion worth of needed repairs and maintenance on existing park lands. If we aren’t caring for what we already have, then Congress shouldn’t be making the problem worse. Our existing treasures should be our focus to ensure families that load up the minivan or SUV to take a summer vacation to a national park have a safe, enjoyable and accessible visit. I guarantee you that no family from any state will ever load up the minivan and drive to this park in the Caribbean ocean."
And yet, while Rep. Hastings and his GOP colleagues on the Resources Committee were lambasting the Castle Nugent proposal, Sen. Richard Burr and seven colleagues were introducing legislation that calls for $75 million to be spent over five years to acquire upwards of 50,000 acres of land surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway. Sen. Burr, who hails from North Carolina, was the only Republican among the eight. The others behind the proposal are U.S. Sens. Kay R. Hagan (D-NC), Jim Webb (D-VA), and Mark Warner (D-VA), and Reps. Shuler (D-NC), David Price (D-NC), Rick Boucher (D-VA), and Tom Perriello (D-VA), who were expected to introduce companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
"The Blue Ridge Parkway is a state and national treasure, and an investment now will help us protect the Parkway for future generations," the senator, who crafted the measure, said Tuesday.
David Ward, Sen. Burr's press secretary, on Wednesday wouldn't second-guess Rep. Hastings' position on what is fiscally prudent during these economically trying times. However, he said the senator believes conservation of lands surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway is "vital" and that spending to preserve the landscape accomplishes a number of goals.
“We view the goal of our legislation is two-fold. One, primarily, is to preserve this land as a conservation measure for generations to come," said Mr. Ward. "The Blue Ridge Parkway is widely visited by people from all over the country. ... It exposes a lot of people to the beauty of the natural environment in that part of the country. It can also serve as a natural classroom."
Too, the Parkway has a significant impact on the region's economy, he said.
As for the nation's current budgetary woes, Mr. Ward said there are many areas outside the national parks where spending can be cut back.
“There are a lot of places where we need to start reining in spending. Their are duplicative programs, there are bureaucracies that not only are duplicative but also are obsolete," he said.
Construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway began in 1935 near Cumberland Knob, North Carolina. Today, it stretches 469 miles from North Carolina and Virginia, and its breathtaking views attract nearly 20 million visitors per year, making it the most-visited site in the National Park System. One of the strongest economic engines in the region, the Blue Ridge Parkway generates an estimated $2.3 billion in North Carolina and Virginia annually.
The Castle Nugent property once was "one of 264 cotton and sugar plantations formed on the island of St. Croix after 1733, when the Danish West Indies Company first purchased the island from the French," according to Olasee Davis, an extension assistant professor/extension specialist natural resources at the University of the Virgin Islands. "It was first farmed as early as 1738. Over the centuries, the farm has had many owners, one of them being Christopher Nugent, who bought the farm in 1774 and gave the estate its name. Castle Nugent Farms is one of the largest parcels of privately held land in the Virgin Islands and has been an operating cattle ranch for more than 50 years."
The current owners have run Senepol cattle, a unique breed developed in the island in the early 1900s, on the ranch, according to Mr. Davis. The land itself includes a Caribbean dry forest ecosystem, the largest barrier reef system in the Virgin Islands and perhaps the largest in the Caribbean, he added.
"The cultural resources are also another component of Castle Nugent Estate. This includes pre-Columbian sites and a large historic 17th Century Danish estate great house with other historic plantation buildings and ruins. In fact, the overseer house or great house is now listed on the National Register of Historical Places," Mr. Davis told the subcommittee. "The historical landscape of the property is another attraction and remains intact with its rolling hills, and open grassy shrub plains dropping to the Caribbean Sea. During the spring and fall seasons, the Castle Nugent Estate blanketed with Ginger Thomas (Tecoma stans) blossoms, the Virgin Islands official flowers and the landscape is alive with butterflies."
The National Parks Conservation Association believes Castle Nugent would be a vital acquisition for the National Park Service, both because it would preserve cultural and natural resources ranging from pre-Columbian sites to nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles (see attached.)